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Utah's Great Salt Lake: Out of water, full of muck

Boaters, parks officials frustrated with dredging delays, low levels

GREAT SALT LAKE — Along with black mud churned up by the whirling propellers of the state park's patrol boat, the machinery digging into the lake bed unleashed an awful, nauseating smell of decaying brine shrimp Friday.

The mud, the smell, the dreary line of dry-docked sailboats helps to etch Dave Shearer's wind-weathered face into an expression of near hopelessness, of being beaten down — not by the elements of sun and sea but by staring every day at a marina that does not function.

"It's had a huge impact on morale, on the sailing community out here. The Salt Lake Yacht Club has lost a lot of its membership," said Shearer, the harbor master who has lived on site for more than 17 years, as he maneuvered the boat through the extremely shallow waters of the harbor.

"It's been tough."

Low water forced owners to pull their sailboats from the slips at the dock last year. Many left the state. The stalwarts are parked on concrete, with water aficionados hoping, like Shearer, that Mother Nature will turn on the faucet this winter and let it snow, snow and snow some more so the waters flow once again.

The Utah Legislature budgeted $1.5 million to dredge the Great Salt Lake Marina this fall.

Utah park officials maneuvered the bureaucratic maze to obtain the necessary permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a contractor was all set to go in a silt removal project involving the suction and piping of an estimated 35,000 cubic yards of material to a repository about 5 miles away.

Then, the Union Pacific Railroad announced its plan to breach the causeway in a massive repair project that will dramatically affect how the water is distributed in the Great Salt Lake, allowing the south end's fresher water to migrate north.

The end result, said parks construction manager Dan Clark, will be another loss of up to 18 inches of water from the lake's southern end.

Clark said that additional water loss is forcing state officials to scrap the original engineering plan to remove the muck and dig down at least a couple feet deeper to get the results they need.

"It has slowed us down a bit," Clark said.

Boaters are frustrated because they are anxious to get back out on the water.

There's been rumors the project is off, the money has gone elsewhere and the marina will be left dry and desolate.

Eugene Swalberg, a slight grimace on his face as he bounces on a dock sitting in mud, said there's not a chance the park division is giving up on efforts to get the marina functional.

"We are absolutely committed to moving forward," said Swalberg, the spokesman for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation.

Another request for bids to dredge the marina will be issued in a few weeks and the U.S. Corps of Engineers will once again have to sign off on the project, which could take six months.

Swalberg said they hope work begins in the spring and robust winter storms will help the drying lake replenish its waters.

In the interim, they fear the consequences of the low water.

After the causeway breach happens, Shearer said levels of the Great Salt Lake will dip so low that the park's search and rescue boat will be prevented from any rescues — particularly troublesome given that the lake is along the path of commercial, military and private flights. Crashes into the lake are frequent, so rescuers may have to turn to aerial support from the Utah National Guard and other agencies to retrieve any victims.

But Swalberg, Shearer and others said they are determined to find ways to wait out and survive the drying of the Great Salt Lake, with hopes that things will turn.

"We are not at all happy we are in a drought. But Mother Nature is in charge and those are the things we are dealing with," Swalberg said. "If we were king for a day, we would bring back normal to above normal snowpack for at least a couple years."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16