SALT LAKE CITY — Out here where a vast expanse of solitude is just around a bend in the boulders and dancing on the waves of the Great Salt Lake, a little, tight-knit community is disintegrating right before Dave Shearer's eyes.
"Some pulled out, went to California, and they never came back," he said. "We are a community marina. We're all friends, a lively group who know each other. … It is sort of sad because this is the oldest and largest sailing community in Utah."
Low water levels of the Great Salt Lake are driving sailors and other water enthusiasts to leave the neighborhood.
The water has dropped within 2 feet of the lake's historic low recorded in 1963 and capacity in the year-round slips is down 50 percent. Shearer, who is harbor master at the Great Salt Lake Marina, expects many more will leave while there's still enough water to pull their boats out.
But there's another problem: the ability to launch rescue boats to help others in need as the water level drops.
"I've never seen it this bad."
Dredging the marina would buy it some time, but there are more needs than dollars that exist for that.
During a recent presentation at a meeting of the Natural Resources appropriations subcommittee, Janet Robins pleaded for intervention.
"This year we are looking at losing more boats in the spring because if we don't get out quickly, we won't be able to get out at all without dredging," she said. "It is likely that we will lose up to 200 boats this spring, resulting in a loss of revenue of $250,000 annually."
Helping three marinas
The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands hired an engineering firm to determine the dredging needs for marinas at three locations: Antelope Island, the Great Salt Lake Marina and Utah Lake.
Utah State Parks spokesman Eugene Swalberg said that the greatest need existed at Utah Lake because it would have the greatest impact based on the number of people who use the marina.
Jason Allen, manager at the Utah Lake State Park, said there's only 3 feet of water in the marina, and it is posing problems for boaters.
"There is just enough water to get you in and out of the marina if you know what you are doing and where you are going."
Allen has a 27-foot rescue boat he is not even going to put on the water this year. He said the Utah County Sheriff's Office got a new air boat this spring that can go just about anywhere to retrieve people, but boats stuck in the silt are having to be pulled out by a private company.
The $1.5 million in funding — if approved by the Utah Legislature this session — will help to ease the problem at Utah Lake State park and its marina, but problems at the Great Salt Lake marina and at Antelope Island likely will go unsolved.
As Shearer maneuvered his rescue boat around the bending protrusion of rocks leading into the harbor Tuesday, powerful propellers churned up the mud — or the silt — that has collected over the decades.
"Over time with the winds and the storms, the mouths of these marinas will silt in," said Jeremy Shaw, manager at the Great Salt Lake State Park. "Dredging will remove that silt."
Shearer said dredging and an ample runoff would help, but with a spring runoff forecast to be much below average, he's not optimistic.
"We are likely to be in serious trouble."
Stuck in the mud
Two rows of sailing vessels along what's called the E dock are already stuck, and more boats will be rendered worthless as the situation grows worse, Shearer said.
Along the "shoreline" just west of the marina, Shearer points to an exposed beach, a line of rocks and Phragmites australis.
"All of that should be under water."
To the north, against the causeway leading to Antelope Island, there is a black crane that rises near the lapping water.
"You used to be able to drive your boat around it," Shaw said. "Now you can drive a truck up to it."
Kay Denton, who testified to the committee on behalf of the Great Salt Lake Rowing Club, said members have to hug the rocky shore in long, slender boats that tip easily to make room for the sailboats to navigate the narrow harbor. It's become a safety concern for members of the club.
Shearer said the marina configuration was never intended to be this way.
The Great Salt Lake marina was actually built out "on" the lake, he said, but receding waters over time have created the little tucked away channel that boats have to maneuver through.
There's about 18 inches of water that exists in the marina now, covering about 3 to 5 feet of silt that could be dredged to restore a navigable area.
"If we don't get any more water by summer's end we could lose the ability to get this out," he cautioned, waving a hand through the cabin of the vessel.
Shearer, the rescue boat and the crew of first responders are busy.
There's already been a fatal plane crash this year, and Shearer estimates there's 16 full-blown search and rescues and close to 80 vessel assists every year.
"Just a month ago, they were pulling plane parts out of the lake," Denton said. "There are so many situations with duck hunters, kayakers, sailboaters, brine shrimpers and downed airplanes, it is imperative those rescue boats be able to get out."