Frank Heinz

Why is the Great Salt Lake Shrinking?

The drying up of Utah's Great Salt Lake is beginning to have significant economic consequences, and that seems to have stirred up a hint of turbulence among the lake's varied stakeholders.

With the north part of the lake at its lowest level in recorded history, the lake's biggest mineral company is calling for action no later than December on a long-standing plan to punch a hole through a railroad causeway.

For years, the causeway has been acting like a gigantic dam across the body of the lake.

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The plan to breach the causeway was delayed to December because of concerns about the impact on the lake's brine shrimp population. So this week, officials of Compass Minerals launched a media push to argue against any further delays.

In spite of the company's worry, it's not clear at this point if any agencies, businesses or interest groups will actually push for another postponement.

The issue swirls around a railroad causeway built in 1959. It crosses the Great Salt Lake on an east-west line dozens of miles west of Ogden.

Several years ago, Union Pacific closed two culverts in the causeway because they were collapsing and threatening the stability of the railroad bed. That action severed the connection between the lake's north arm and south arm, in effect creating two very different lakes.

The south arm gets all the incoming fresh water from three major rivers while the north arm gets almost no fresh water. Over the years, the north arm has become extremely salty and now evaporation is shriveling it up.

"The north arm is now 3.5 feet lower than the south arm, which is unprecedented," said Joe Havasi, director of natural resources for Compass Minerals.

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