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The Great Salt Lake
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The Great Salt Lake in northwestern Utah is North America's unique inland sea. The lake's terminal desert setting, Pleistocene heritage, and the nearly five billion tons of salt and other minerals it contains suggest a dead sea. The Great Salt Lake is old, but it is not dead.

The saline lake brims with diverse life. Algae, brine flies, brine shrimp and their billions of bright red eggs, salt marsh bushes and grasses, and millions of shorebirds and waterfowl are part of its life. Of the lake's eight named islands, Antelope Island and Fremont Island are inhabitable. Antelope Island has a state park and transplanted buffalo, deer, elk and antelope. Smaller, more inaccessible islands are nesting grounds for migratory birds. The lake has hunting, sailing, mineral industries, micro burst storms and, of course, exquisite sunsets.

The surface level and volume of the Great Salt Lake change continuously, primarily in response to climatic factors. Man's activities have had a lesser, but still important, effect on the level and volume of the lake. The lake level generally declines in the spring and summer when the weather is hot enough that the loss of water by evaporation from the lake surface is greater than the inflow from surface streams, groundwater and precipitation directly on the lake. The lake level rises in the autumn when the temperature cools and the inflow exceeds the loss of water by evaporation.

Because the Great Salt Lake is a closed basin and its only outflow is evaporation from its surface, the change in the lake's surface area, volume and level reflects the integrated effect of all processes of the hydrologic cycle within the drainage basin. Historically, these effects have been displayed by changes to the inflow to the lake which has caused wide fluctuations in the surface area, volume and stage of the lake. Since 1847, when the historical record of lake level fluctuations began, the annual inflow to the lake has ranged from 1. 1 to 9.1 million acre-feet. The stage reached its first modern period high of 4211.5 feet in 1873 and a low of 4,191.35 feet in 1963.

The major surface flows that enter the Great Salt Lake are from the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers, the headwaters of which occur within 50 miles of each other. Smaller streams that discharge into the Great Salt Lake are Farmington, Centerville, Holmes, Ricks, Parrish, Stone and Mill creeks.

The Bear River drains a 6,800 square-mile area in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho and provides the largest surface inflow to the Great Salt Lake. Some of the heaviest precipitation in the state of Utah occurs in the Weber River Basin, which covers about 2,060 square miles. Flows entering the Great Salt Lake from the Jordan River originate in the Uinta Mountains east of Salt Lake City. The main tributaries above Utah Lake are the Provo and Spanish Fork rivers that rise at 11,000 and 9,500 foot elevations respectively. The Jordan River begins at the outflow from Utah Lake and flows northward through Salt Lake County to the lake. Several streams from the west slopes of the Wasatch Mountains enter the Jordan River along its path to the Great Salt Lake. The major streams are Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood, Mill, Parley's, Emigration and City creeks.

These runoff swollen rivers and streams harassed homes, businesses, reservoirs and roads between 1982 and 1986, then dumped their enormous flows into the Great Salt Lake.

The Lake Catches It All
From 1963 through 1986, the Great Salt Lake rose nearly 20 feet, more than doubled its surface area, and increased its volume nearly three-fold. Almost 12 feet of the rise occurred since the beginning of 1982, attributed to excessive precipitation in northern Utah drainage areas that feed the Great Salt Lake. Inflow to the lake in 1986 was more than double the normal average. On June 5, 1986, the level of the south arm of the Great Salt Lake reached a new record historic high elevation of 4211.85 feet above sea level. The lake reached the same level again in 1987. At this modem record level, the lake covered approximately 2,400 square miles and contained more than 30 million acre-feet of water. For perspective, its expanse was only about 487 square miles less than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and the lake contained an acre-foot of water for every resident of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

In its bloated size from the horded inflow from record amounts of snow and rain in northern Utah, the lake went on a destructive rampage. By 1986 flood damage estimates around the lake to public and private land, industries, major transportation routes, public facilities and wildlife habitat totaled more than $240 million. Potential cost of damages was estimated at $1 billion, figuring affected company payrolls, tax payments, capital expenditures and purchases.


Flooding problems existed all around the lake. On the south shore, Interstate 80, the Union Pacific Railroad, the Great Salt Lake State Park and Marina, and beaches were inundated. Water washing over the freeway during one May 1986 storm backed traffic for miles. The Union Pacific Railroad that parallels Interstate 80 along an 11.5 mile stretch on the lake's south shore acts as a breakwater for 1-80. The railroad raised its tracks a number of times between Kennecott and Burmester in Tooele County, starting in 1983, that railroad officials estimated cost about $24 million. The state park facilities access roads and marina were washed away; a remnant restroom building withstood the heavy waves the longest, but it too was pulled apart and spread along the shoreline. The Saltair resort and adjoining amusement park that had been reopened in the spring of 1983 after being restored by several Salt Lake City businessmen was engulfed; its dance floor and parking lot ended up under four feet of water. Beaches popular with local residents and out of-state visitors were scoured away by the lake's high waves.

GSL flooding GSL flooding

AMAX Magnesium Corp., one of I I mineral industries around the lake, lost a 200-yard section of a 13-mile-long outer dike to pounding waves. In two days, nearly 500,000 acre-feet of lake water flowed through the breach to inundate the company's mineral extraction ponds. The company employed 750 people and indirectly affected 1,150 jobs. The company paid about $1 million in taxes each year. The dike breach stopped a $5 million joint venture with Diamond Crystal Salt Co. to produce solar salt in ponds planned for the area that was flooded.

The lake level threatened health problems to groundwater in low-lying areas. In Erda, Tooele County, 40 septic tanks failed and 300 more were endangered. In some low-lying areas such as Rose Park on the east side of the lake, as many as 1,000 homes were threatened. The elevation of Rose Park was actually three feet below the level of the lake.

Serious concern was shown for groundwater problems that could affect the Salt Lake International Airport. The airport is at elevation 4213, while the runways are at 4220.The state and federal waterfowl management areas were devastated by the lake's intruding salt water. Facilities at Farmington Bay, Howard Slough, Ogden Bay state waterfowl management areas and the historic federal Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge were completely destroyed along with facilities of many private duck and goose clubs. Power and communication towers along the cast shore of the lake were hundreds of yards offshore. Eventually the state park facilities on Antelope Island shorelines were washed away, and the causeway from the Syracuse area to the island was covered by nearly six feet of water. Productive farmland in this area was submerged.

GSL flooding - state boat harbor GSL flooding - state boat harbor

Fresh water management areas at Locomotive Springs National Waterfowl Management Area 50 miles west of Brigham City were topped by wind-driven lake water, damaging about 85 percent of the 4,000-acre management area. It had been a prime fall duck and goose hunting area since 1935. Luckily, the fresh water springs were undamaged.

GSL flooding - waterfowl management Several sewage treatment plants became islands in the lake, protected by walls of sandbags. A radio station, setting several feet below the shoreline water level, surrounded itself with dikes.

Great Salt Lake Minerals and Chemicals Corp., a company that operates a huge system of ponds at the lake's north edge to extract potassium sulfate, potash and salt, diverted employees from mineral production to dike building to shore up against the inexorably creeping lake level.

The floods of 1983 were probably the most widespread the state has ever experienced. By the end of 1983, flood damage throughout the state exceeded $478 million, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety. Total damage in 1984 was estimated at $190 million. Of Utah's 29 counties, 22 were approved by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) as disaster areas.

Despite the devastation, the situation spawned some humor. Proponents of a so-called "Think Lake Bonneville Society" announced rain dances to prod Mother Nature to bring back prehistoric Lake Bonneville that once covered most of northern Utah and parts of Idaho and Nevada. The society jokingly claimed the new Lake Bonneville would boost tourism, create a building boom (people would have to move to the mountains) and allow planting of fresh-water sturgeon to make Utah caviar. And interestingly, Utah County commissioners, asking for a day of prayer to stop the flooding, ignited a protest from the "Freedom From Religion Foundation" in Madison, Wisconsin, In a letter to Utah Attorney General David L. Wilkinson, the group called the commissioner's plea an "unacceptable abuse of separation of church and state."

The State Reacts
Before 1983 the state left most of the responsibility for flood control with the counties. The 1983 spring floods, however, were so extensive and serious that the state became deeply involved in flood mitigation and prevention.

Historians say Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon pioneers who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, explored the possibility of spilling the lake into the west desert area when the lake peaked at 4211.6 feet in 1873. But the lake receded on its own after 1873. During the early 1970s, several researchers and state and federal agencies defined the hydrology of the lake, developed computer models of its, and investigated alternatives for dealing with high lake levels. Summaries of much of this work were published in 1973 and 1974 by the Utah Division of Water Resources titled Great Salt Lake Climate and Hydrologic System and Hydrologic System Management Alternatives Report. The 19 7 7 and 1978 drought years slowed interest in preparing for problems with high levels of the Great Salt Lake. But a flurry of legislation was passed in 1983 and 1984 legislative sessions which committed the state to help alleviate flood damage. With the continual rise of the lake during those years, a breach of the Southern Pacific Railroad Causeway gained support. The elevation of the lake was over three feet higher on the south side of the causeway than on the north side. The causeway had become a dam. Great Salt Lake Minerals provided $200,000 for the state to conduct a feasibility study of the proposed breach. The state's technical position was that the breach would lower the level of the south arm of the lake nearly a foot and would be cost effective. In January 1984, after being defeated in two legislative sessions, a breach of the Southern Pacific Railroad Causeway was funded. Costing about $3.2 million, a 300-foot wide bridge was constructed in the causeway near the west side of the lake and the causeway breach was opened on August 1, 1984.

During a two-day special session of the Utah State Legislature that ended on May 14, 1986, a $71.7 million flood control plan was approved to pump water from the Great Salt Lake and build more emergency shore diking. The pumping project, originally proposed during the administration of Gov. Scott M. Matheson, was one of several proposals that were spawned by flooding of the Great Salt Lake. The so-called "last resort" pumping plan, sponsored by Republican Sen. Fred Finlinson, passed with two-thirds support and was expected to lower by about 16 inches after a year of pumping. Engineers hoped pumping would start in February 1987.

The flood control bill, HB6, cautiously backed by Gov. Norman H. Bangerter, provided $60 million to the Utah Division of Water Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, for constructing the West Desert Pumping Project and $ 10 million to the Disaster Relief Board to implement diking in Salt Lake County, raise breakwaters around the Great Salt Lake Marina, raise dikes at the AMAX Magnesium Plant and American Salt Co. to protect Interstate 80, and further dike protection of sewage treatment facilities on the lake's east shore. Tagged to the bill was $1.2 million for engineering design of an interisland diking proposal and $500,000 for preconstruction design studies of upstream storage dams, principally on the Bear River, which would require 10 to 20 years to complete. Flood control funding included $30 million from an existing flood mitigation fund deposited in the Conservation and Development Fund managed by the Utah Board of Water Resources, and $41.7 million obtained from a general obligation bond. The bond was to be paid off with a one-eighth cent share of the state's sales tax retained through 1989.