Visual Arts

The Great Salt Lake is Dead. Long Live the Great Salt Lake?

The marina at Saltair in Jan. 2020, when the Great Salt Lake water level was just below 4191. Image credit: Shawn Rossiter

You might have heard a variation of this over Easter dinner (or whatever the matriarch at your table called Sunday’s meal): “The Great Salt Lake has already gone up three feet!” A vague enough statement — three feet from what, you might ask. But the implication is clear: “Good news!” And if it wasn’t clear enough, there’s the follow up: “And the snow hasn’t even started melting.”

It has (snow, after all, melts throughout the winter). But yes, there is still plenty of water in them there hills after this epic, unprecedented season (and some of it extremely packed and dense thanks to those selfless souls who spent hours waiting in line to turn fluffy powder into slow-melting hardpack). The water content of Utah’s statewide average snowpack hit 30.1” at the beginning of April. That’s a record, and almost double the 30-year median of 15.8. Back in 1983, when downtown Salt Lake City flooded, the snowpack only hit 26 inches of water.

So here’s an idea for a piece of performance art: Pay someone hanging out at the end of a freeway exit or near you local shopping district to hold a cardboard sign that reads:

Epic Winter.
Great Salt Lake Filling.
Go Back to Normal.

Sarcasm. Because the answer to “from what” is “an historic low.” That is, the 4188 feet above sea level the lake was at in November, before the snow started to fall. With a three-foot increase, we’ve almost reached 4192, which is not even the low point of the lake in the fall of 2020.

But the snow is still melting. So, how much will be enough? When can we go back to playing golf, watering our lawns and selling our alfalfa? We’ll let scientific journals give you a scientific answer. As an art journal, we’ll use an art yardstick. At what point would there be enough water for Spiral Jetty to be partially submerged in water? Not completely submerged, as it was for much of the first three decades after Robert Smithson created it. But partially, with white frothy foam circling around it in a magenta sea? Like, say, in the spring of 2004.

Spiral Jetty in October, 2012. Lake levels have been in steady decline since then.

That’s when it got pretty close to the level it was in April, 1970, when Smithson created it: 4195.4. (For our understanding of lake levels and their effect on Spiral Jetty we’re relying on the wonderful work done by Hikmet Loe for these pages here and here). Spiral Jetty started going under water soon after Smithson completed the project, and at the high water mark in 1986, three years after the epic winter that caused flooding in Salt Lake City, it was more than 15 feet underwater.  It began peeking out in 1993, but stayed under water most of the time until 2004. The next decade was a banner time for Spiral Jetty, when you could visit it throughout the year and see it in an ever-changing state — but usually surrounded or partially submerged by water. Anyone who has visited in the decade since, however, knows the Jetty is usually far from any water.

We would need the lake to rise another four feet to see the frothy white circles around Smithson’s work. Will that happen in the next month (as this graph shows, lake levels usually peak in May)? The lake is 1,600 square miles (a size that can increase or decrease by up to 500 square miles, depending on water levels). Can 30 inches of water content in our mountains fill it four feet? We’ll let a science (or math) journal answer whether that is a possibility. But we won’t hold our breath (unless a wind storm kicks up some toxic dust).

A graph from the U.S. Dept. of the Interior shows the steady decline of Great Salt Lake since 2013.

Categories: Visual Arts

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