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Great? Salt Lake not living up to its name

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Utah's dwindling Great Salt Lake has withdrawn so far from its traditional shores you don't have to go wading, let alone miraculously walk on water, to trek across it anymore.

Because of near-record low water levels — the lake is almost 18 feet lower than it was during its mid-1980s heyday and some 6 feet below its average elevation — the Great Salt Lake is now almost totally devoid of true islands. Oodles of extra ground have been revealed just this year, including a huge sandbar north of Antelope Island that hasn't been visible for nearly 40 years.

Of the 10 notable islands in the lake — four major isles and six minor ones — only Gunnison Island in the lake's northwest arm is still surrounded by water. The other 10 are all connected to the mainland in some fashion.

And Gunnison may yet join them.

"There's probably only a foot of water left around Gunnison," says Wallace Gwynn of the Utah Geological Survey.

The "islands" are larger now, too, from the extra land exposed around their shores.

And because the lake's elevation is just 4,194.2 feet above sea level now, even Fremont Island is connected to land.

A gigantic sandbar — up to a mile wide in some places — was still 1.5 feet underwater last fall. But Utah's six-year drought finally allowed it to emerge late this summer for the first time in four decades.

In the mid-1960s, Charles Stoddard of West Point used to drive his truck across the sandbar to Fremont Island to do some ranching. However, by the late 1960s, the rising lake made that trip far too muddy and wet.

Using the sandbar to go from the causeway to Antelope Island, and northwest to Fremont Island, has only been possible during three other periods since the pioneers settled here in 1847 — from about 1902-1907, from 1934-1940 and again from 1958-67. The lake's surface elevation must be about 4,194 feet for the dry ground to emerge.

"Hiking" the lake

A trek on the sandbar is no cakewalk. It is level, but Fremont is not as close as it appears. It is at least seven miles to Fremont, a privately owned island, from the Antelope Island causeway.

The muddiest portion is the first few hundred yards. Then the stretch toward Fremont is almost always a dry, dusty and seemingly endless plain.

On a recent hike of 14-plus miles, all that was visible were a few pieces of wood, a few bird feathers, one old tire, an old glass pop bottle, pockets of decaying brine shrimp and sections of salty crust.

The lone landmark is an old wooden log, curiously stuck firmly in the lake bed about 1.5 miles from the causeway, and sticking up 10 feet above ground on a slant.

Walking toward the sandbar at top speed, it took 2 1/2 hours to reach the edge of Fremont Island. A herd of cows there seemed oblivious to the fact that freedom awaited them, if they simply walked across the sandbar. Although the cattle have walked through portions of what used to be Wenner Bay, they seem content on Fremont.

(Anyone wanting to explore Fremont Island should make prior arrangements with the landowner.)

Although U.S. Geological Survey maps list the sandbar at an elevation of 4,194 feet above sea level, it is at least a foot higher now. Gwynn doesn't discount that 40 years of sediment from the inflow of the Weber River might have raised the sandbar somewhat in the past 40 years.

Health risks?

In the short term, the lake's exposed mud flats — especially in Farmington Bay, west of Davis County's cities and towns — may yet pose health risks. Gwynn said the Environmental Protection Agency is analyzing the dust in Farmington Bay to determine if it has any toxic properties that could become airborne in windstorms.

When will the lake rise again? It does so seasonally every year.

Gwynn said it's usually late October or early November when the lake begins to rise. However, he's expecting it will be almost a half-foot lower next summer than it is now if the drought continues. The sandbar likely will turn wet again later this fall, not drying out again until at least next summer.

The lake's all-time low was about 4,191 feet in 1963. Its all-time high, at 4,212, was not all that long ago, in 1986-87.

Lynn Arave, Ryan Layton and Mike Spencer walked the approximate 16-mile round-trip distance along the sandbar, from the Antelope Island causeway to the edge of Fremont Island, on Sept. 27. E-mail: lynn@desnews.com