A strong wind caught a Kevlar fiber sail and snapped it as Bob Derby and Randy Atkin tugged the lines to steer Red Stripe, their 25-foot boat, through the salty waters of the endangered Great Salt Lake.
There was little to be heard except the faint hum of trucks cruising past a copper smelter on the lake’s shore—a respite from the hustle and bustle of Salt Lake City and its booming suburbs that encroach further into the deserts and farmlands of Utah each year.
“Everything that happened today just fades away and there’s nothing quite like it,” said Derby, a 61-year-old veteran sailor who is battling cancer. “There is no better therapy than on the lake.”
It’s a feeling that old friends Derby and Atkin weren’t sure they’d experience again.
The Red Stripe’s return comes after she and hundreds of other sailboats were heaved out of the shrinking Great Salt Lake as water levels have dropped in recent years and the docks on the lake’s parched southern shore have been left caked with dried mud. Great Salt Lake State Park Marina Harbor Master Dave Shearer wondered if he would see her return before he retired.
But in a record winter, the snow has melted and flowed through the creeks, streams and rivers that feed the lake, bringing this season’s high about 6 feet above last year’s record low – enough to give sailors the opportunity give their boats back into the water with cranes and hold their popular Wednesday races, where cold beers and jokes are just as important as the winner.
When they returned, they joined many others – farmers, skiers and homeowners nearby – to rejoice in the surprise rise of the Great Salt Lake in the midst of a prolonged mega-drought.
“The marina is finally alive again,” said Tyler Oborn, who leads pontoon tours on the lake and enjoys fire dancing on the shore.
But it’s not clear it will last.
The Great Salt Lake faces an imbalance between supply and demand: as drought caused by climate change reduces the amount of water flowing through the region’s mountains and rivers, the appetite for water increases in the booming cities along the Wasatch Front as well as at the farmers who live there depend on their alfalfa and onion fields for their livelihood.
“Everyone is talking about the lake rising, but it’s at an all-time low. It was an incredible disaster,” said Derby, who works for a medical device manufacturer. “Now it’s just a moderate disaster. I worry that everyone will proclaim victory and say that the Great Salt Lake has been saved and that we can stop worrying about water conservation.”
The shrunken Great Salt Lake is no longer the boating mecca or vacation spot it was decades ago, when it was roughly twice the size it is today. But it remains a lifeblood of Utah’s economy, as it has a $1.5 billion annual mining industry that extracts minerals like magnesium and table salt, an $80 million brine shrimp industry for fish food, and a $1.4 billion US dollar expensive ski industry that markets itself with the fluffy “flakes”. “Lake effect” snow provided by geography.
Brigham Young University ecologist Ben Abbott, who authored a study in January warning that the lake could dry up within five years, said every meter rise in lake level is helpful — especially in suppressing hazardous dust from the exposed lake bed. But 6 feet — and images of boats heading back into the water — shouldn’t calm the sense of urgency for Utah to take action that could guarantee the lake’s survival, he said.
“We don’t want to be back in a plane that crashes,” Abbott said. “We should look at this great winter as life expectancy and as an opportunity to implement our long-term protective measures.”
Before this winter’s record snowfall, dire warnings like Abbott’s made saving the Great Salt Lake a top priority for Utah politicians. State and local officials offered millions of dollars in incentives to encourage farmers to become conservationists and sponsored homeowner and community education. But they have avoided considering that draconian measures are being implemented elsewhere in the drought-stricken west: water rationing, zoning, or fines for overuse.
“Mother Nature really helped us,” Republican Senator Scott Sandall said earlier this year during the Utah legislative session. “We didn’t have to pull this lever in case of an emergency.”
If the great lake continues to recede, it could mean the collapse of the ecosystem. When not enough water flows into the lake, the reefs that support species like brine flies and shrimp are decimated, which in turn impacts the larger species that feed on them, including pelicans and other migratory birds. And each exposed lake property means the wind picks up more arsenic-laden dust and carries it to nearby homes, schools and office parks.
For now, Derby and other sailors are rejoicing at the chance to unfurl their sails and catch up with friends again with fresh breezes and silly jokes.
“It’s so beautiful, it’s beautiful,” Atkin said, looking up at the sails. “You can feel the power of the wind a little, how bad can that be?”
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