Great Salt Lake's seven-year rise tests Utah's ingenuity

Kay Bowen used to operate a farm in a verdant community 45 minutes north of here. Today his 40-acre spread looks more like a marine sanctuary. For seven years he has watched the Great Salt Lake rise. Once a smudge on the horizon, it now laps at the doorstep of his cinnamon-brick bungalow.

``This looks like it will be the last spring we can stay in our home,'' says Mr. Bowen, who has already moved his livestock to higher ground and stopped growing crops on all but a few unflooded acres.

Over the past century residents and institutions that hug the inland sea's shoreline have had to cope with Great Salt Lake's cycles of expansion and receding. But, this time around, the lake has been unusually capricious in its excess: Swollen by a rare cycle of snow-heavy winters, it has risen some 12 feet in four years. And since 1963 it has nearly tripled in size.

Thousands of acres of prime Utah land have been inundated, bird sanctuaries are imperiled, and lakeside industries menaced. As its waters continue to rise, the lake is threatening highways, railroad beds, and sewage-treatment plants in what has become a peculiar modern parable with a familiar Western theme: man's struggle against nature.

While officials have been struggling to cope with the briny deluge -- including approving a multimillion-dollar plan to pump water into the nearby desert -- the flood threat is far from over. Last week the lake reached a historic high of 4,211.8 feet above sea level, and with some of the snowpack in the nearby Wasatch Mountains still to melt, the water is not expected to peak for several weeks yet.

In the long run, even if the one key player in reducing the lake level -- Mother Nature -- decides to cooperate, engineers predict it could be 10 years before the shoreline returns to its normal boundaries.

``The damage already done is frightening, and the potential damage is even more frightening,'' says Robert Hunter, chairman of a six-county committee on flood control. Mr. Hunter keeps a poster of a Utah license plate in his Ogden office that, instead of the normal slogan ``Ski Utah! the Greatest Snow on Earth,'' reads, ``Swim Utah! the Greatest Water on Earth.''

[On Sunday, a 13-mile-long dike some 50 miles west of Salt Lake City was breached. Water was reported flowing toward Interstate 15 and a Union Pacific Railroad line. An aide to Gov. Norman H. Bangerter said it was believed a Union Pacific dike was strong enough to protect both the rail line and I-15.]

Historically, the Great Salt Lake has been kept in check by a delicate balance of nature. In the spring, runoff from the surrounding mountains flows into the lake, which has no outlets, causing the water level to rise. Intense evaporation in summer and fall then reduces the volume.

Periodically, however, the ritual deviates. In 1950, the lake started dropping. By 1963 it had become so low (4,195 feet) that some Utahans were concerned that their all-important asset would dry up. Shortly thereafter, however, the lake began to creep up, jumping dramatically in 1982 and '83 after an unusual cycle of snowy winters and cool summers. Today the lake is considerably larger than the state of Delaware.

The high runoff continues this year. The water content of the Wasatch snowpack is estimated at 250 percent of normal. Recent warm days and cool nights have allowed the lake water to evaporate while the mountain snow melts gradually, and estimates of this year's peak have been reduced. The water level is projected to rise another six inches before cresting.

But the peak won't come for several weeks -- much later than usual, which means a shorter evaporation period this summer.

Some $200 million in property and other damages has been caused since the serious flooding began four years ago. Among the hardest hit have been the companies that evaporate the concentrated brine of the lake to extract table salt, potash, and magnesium.

Flooding, meanwhile, has destroyed most of the marshy wetlands that had been the feeding and nesting grounds for millions of birds and mammals, ranging from the Caspian tern to the chisel-toothed kangaroo rat.

``There isn't a viable marshland out there,'' says Terry Holzworth, flood control director for Salt Lake County.

A few miles from here, the Moorish Saltair palace -- a lake resort and amusement park -- is being turned into a marina. Its oaken floors are covered by six feet of water, as are area beaches.

If the lake's waters rise another couple of feet Interstate 80, the main highway west from Salt Lake City, would have to be relocated -- at a cost of some $400 million. Also inundated would be a 25-mile railroad causeway that slices across the lake at Ogden, north of here.

The lake is within inches of swamping local sewage-treatment lagoons and sweeping across a low-lying subdivision called Rose Park on the edge of the city.

The state legislature recently approved a long-controversial pumping plan. Starting next February, water will be siphoned from the lake, coarsed through canals and dikes, and spewed into the western desert to evaporate. But if the lake rises rapidly, the $55 million plan will do little to stop the waters.

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