SALT LAKE CITY – The drought-shrunken Great Salt Lake (search) could be back at its typical level in as few as two or three years, experts say.
The U.S. Geological Survey automated gauge has recorded the level at about 4,195.5 feet above sea level for the past three weeks. That translates to a surface area of about 1,000 square miles.
By comparison, the average lake level over the years since Utah was settled is 4,200 feet, at which it covers 1,700 square miles, according to the USGS.
Many Utahns hope the lake will rise soon and "cover up those stinkin' mud flats, so it doesn't create a huge dust storm every time a storm comes through," said Randy Julander (search), snow survey supervisor for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service in Salt Lake City.
And that may be exactly what will happen, provided the drought does not return.
"The main source of inflow to the lake is the Bear River system," said Brian McInerney (search), hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. This year, when the drought suddenly ended and the Bear River (search) flooded, there was above-normal inflow to the lake.
Hot summer weather caused evaporation which lowered the lake again. But as winter nears, the evaporation slows, and fall and winter storms add more water. In the spring, the lake's rebound could be going strong.
"My feeling is, if you get normal to above normal inflow, it should take about the same amount of time, the four years," to resume its normal level, said McInerney. With one year of good inflow, that could leave three to go.
That jibes with Julander's feeling. Two or 3 feet higher, and the lake should cover the mud flats, he said. That could take two or three years of good runoff, he said.
The lake's lowest recorded level came in 1963, when the level was 4,191.35 feet above sea level. At the time, it covered only 950 square miles.
Back then, Julander said, a lot of people didn't care if it dried up. The attitude was, "every drop of water going to the lake is wasted," he said.
"The Great Salt Lake didn't have a lot of friends in the '60s. It was more a nuisance, a sewer, a big hole."
In the past four decades, there's been a change of perception. People appreciate its beauty, recreational potential and the abundant waterfowl and other wildlife it supports.
It is, Julander says, "a fascinating pond."