South end of Great Salt Lake up nearly 4 feet since berm raised in February

Apr 29, 2023, 11:05 AM | Updated: 12:07 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Most Utahns know the Great Salt Lake is in danger as the effects of the drought shrunk the lake and water levels reached a historic low in 2022.

However, a recent effort to minimize the ecological effects of the drought is giving hope for the lake’s future.

The Union Pacific Railroad causeway, which stretches 20 miles across the lake, is where you’ll find a breach toward the west end where the ecological effects of the drought are being minimized.

The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, as well as other state agencies, have been working to allow snowpack runoff to dilute salinity levels on the south end of the lake, allowing brine shrimp and flies to hatch, which could provide food for bird migration.

“With other saline lakes drying up in the West, there’s not a whole lot of places for them to stop over, so it’s crucial we support them here at the Great Salt Lake,” said Ben Stireman, who is a sovereign lands manager with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands.

To prevent the south end of the lake from flowing to the north end and further affecting salinity levels on the south end, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox ordered a berm at the breach to be raised 5 feet in February.

The idea was to keep the south end of the lake from flowing into the north end.

Nathan Anderson, who works with Union Pacific, said his team was excited to help and immediately went to work on the berm.

“We want to be a part of the solution to help preserve this fragile environmental area,” Anderson said. “We have a full-time staff of seven people who know this causeway like they know themselves. They built this berm up so we can raise the south end of the lake in a way that addresses the critical environmental concerns.”

Union Pacific has a quarry near the causeway where crews loaded rocks and fill onto train cars and brought that material to the berm to raise it.

“They are almost like landscape artists,” said Anderson. “They are placing rocks where it matters. They are placing rocks in places where it will address flow and erosion.”

So far, the efforts have worked.

“We are seeing the salinity drop on the south end of the lake,” Stireman said. “Also, the fact that we have a great snowpack, it is really benefitting the salinity.”

If necessary, the berm could be decreased or even removed, especially with so much snow still in the mountains and a lot of water yet to come down.

“There are scenarios where we can export salt to the north arm where salinity is not a concern. So, at the end of the runoff season, we will evaluate that,” Stireman said.

While the lake is still far from where it should be, this effort to raise the berm has given many people hope for its future.

“It gives us a minute to breathe while we plan for the next year and this coming year, but our guard is still up,” Stireman said. “It has been a good year, but it is going to take a couple of years to get us out of the danger zone.”

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South end of Great Salt Lake up nearly 4 feet since berm raised in February