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Water levels in Great Salt Lake's north arm hit historic low

The new lows have triggered a number of stipulations outlined in the lake's comprehensive management plan.

By Brooks Hays
A water level gauge stands dry in the bed of the Great Salt Lake, where water levels have hit historic lows in the north arm. State land managers say they will work to crackdown on illegal motorized travel across dry portions of the lake bed. Photo by USGS/MIke Freeman
A water level gauge stands dry in the bed of the Great Salt Lake, where water levels have hit historic lows in the north arm. State land managers say they will work to crackdown on illegal motorized travel across dry portions of the lake bed. Photo by USGS/MIke Freeman

SALT LAKE CITY, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- The north arm of the Great Salt Lake hit historically low levels for the second straight year.

According to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey, the north arm's elevation is now 4,191.6 feet, nearly a foot lower than last year's record. It's also nearly a foot lower than the south arm's elevation of 4,192.5 feet.

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Since the 1950s, a railroad causeway has separated the two arms of the lake. In 1984, a breach was created to alleviate flooding in the south arm. But drought has led to sinking water levels and the breach is now dry, allowing no water to flow between the two arms.

Because the south arm is fed by several rivers and a number of wastewater facilities, it remains more than a foot higher than the north arm. Both arms are expected to sink further if drought conditions continue in the coming months.

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"There is a chance the south arm of the Great Salt Lake could reach a historic low in 2016, but it depends on the amount of precipitation we get through the winter and spring months," USGS scientist Cory Angeroth said in a press release. "The condition of the current mountain snowpack is definitely a positive for the lake and hopefully the storms will keep coming."

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The new lows have triggered a number of stipulations outlined in the lake's comprehensive management plan. Accordingly, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands will not accept any new mineral leasing applications, and will push through approvals for dredging operations.

The Union Pacific railroad, which built the causeway, began construction of a new bridge and deeper causeway this fall. Its completion should once again allow flow between the two arms. That will enable some equalization, but it won't keep the two arms from continuing to evaporate.

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Officials with the state management agency say they will continue to investigate new ways to protect the lake and encourage higher water levels by conserving upstream water resources.

The lake is an economic boon for the region, attracting millions of dollars in both tourism and salt mining. It's also a ecological treasure, offering refuge to millions of migrating birds.

"The health of the Great Salt Lake is important to the quality of life enjoyed in Utah. A healthy lake means thriving industry, which benefits the state's economy," said Laura Ault, FFSL sovereign lands program manager. "A healthy lake also results in more abundant water resources upstream, flourishing wildlife, recreational opportunities, improved ecosystems and better air quality. We're concerned about low lake levels because it can negatively impact the Wasatch Front's overall health."

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