Sep 1, 2022 - News

Shrinking water levels prompt Great Salt Lake rowers to search elsewhere

Illustration of a highway sign reading Salt Lake City with the word Lake crossed out in spraypaint.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A rowing community announced this week it was suspending activities on the Great Salt Lake due to diminishing water levels.

Why it matters: It's the first time Great Salt Lake Rowing has halted its season in its nearly 20-year existence on account of insufficient water in what's known as the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River.

Background: The announcement comes about two months after the U.S. Geological Survey measured the lake's lowest level on record for the second time since July 2021.

  • Water being diverted away from the lake — as a result of increasing consumption and agricultural use — is the main driver for its rapid demise.
  • And during the summer months, much of it evaporates.
  • Utah and the western U.S. are also in the midst of an ongoing megadrought.

What they're saying: “I just think it’s tragic that we’ve let this happen," said Michael Spackman, who co-founded Great Salt Lake Rowing in the early 2000s. "We live in the desert, and we’re one of the highest consumers of water in the nation.”

  • Glenn Eurick, an early participant of the group, said they've dealt with fluctuating water levels before, "but not to the point where we just can't row."

Flashback: Residents and visitors have rowed the Great Salt Lake for over a century, Spackman noted.

Details: Their season typically starts in March and lasts until November, said Irene Lysenko, a coach with the group.

  • Lysenko said leaders made the decision to suspend activities after their boats began scraping the lake bottom last week.
  • At the bare minimum, Lysenko said rowers need 18 inches of water and 20 feet of wide space to row.
A rower carries a boat off the water.
A woman carrying a shell away from the Great Salt Lake last week. Courtesy Marc Pehkonen.

Between the lines: Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, said she's noticed the lake becoming more shallow week by week.

  • "It's clear that we're not in a situation where we're getting enough water into the [lake]," she said. "We're just going to see it keep going down and down and down."
  • As the lake shrinks, its salt levels rise, Baxter added, meaning rowers could encounter more resistance as they row because the water is "heavier."
  • Politicians and climate scientists have sounded the alarm over the disappearing lake's health and economic ramifications. In recent years, solutions have been introduced on how to save it.

What's next: Baxter anticipates water levels will rise again next spring when snowmelt flows into the lake.

  • Lysenko said the group has yet to decide where they'll resume rowing.
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