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September, 26, 2016

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Pink water as drought saps Great Salt Lake

SALT LAKE CITY -- On the southern shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake, more than 100 boats are sitting high and dry in a parking lot, unable to sail the shallow, drought-stricken sea.

North of the nearly empty marina, salt-loving bacteria thriving in the low water has turned the liquid pink.

The massive lake, key to the state's economy and identity, is skirting record-low levels after years of below-average precipitation and record heat. A few dozen lawmakers took a road trip Thursday to see the problems firsthand and learn how they can help — besides praying for more rain and snow this winter.

The lake, about 75 miles long (120 kilometers) and 30 miles wide (50 kilometers), is America's largest outside the Great Lakes. Water levels have always fluctuated, but they have been dropping steadily since 2011.

"If this continues ... the ecosystem as a whole is under a pretty significant threat," said Jason Curry, a spokesman for Utah's Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

The state estimates that the Great Salt Lake's ecosystem has a US$1.32 billion economic effect. It is a home or major resting place for more than 250 species of birds. Salt and other minerals are mined from the lake and used for fertilizer, melting snow on roadways and other products. Its waters are credited with helping produce dry, powdery snow that attracts skiers worldwide to the nearby mountains.

It's generally three to five times saltier than the ocean, allowing swimmers to float easily. The lake is an unforgiving environment for most creatures, but a prime habitat for brine flies and brine shrimp — tiny, clear crustaceans once sold as "sea monkeys" in the back of comic books, whose eggs are harvested and sold worldwide as food for other shrimp, crab and fish.

'We're reaching that limit'

As lake levels drop and the water becomes saltier, even those creatures are threatened.

"Brine shrimp are very resilient to salt but even they have a limit, and we're reaching that limit," said Don Leonard, CEO of the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, a group of companies that harvest and sell the eggs.

The low water levels stress the shrimp in a way that produces fewer eggs, Leonard said. Last year, the cooperative had a below-average harvest and had to pay to dredge its harbor just to get its boats on the water.

He declined to say how much it affected the industry but said dredging has become a yearly, expensive endeavor to dig out a deeper path for boats.

Lawmakers on Thursday took a quick tour of a storage area at a factory that harvests the eggs and visited a plant that extracts minerals from the lake.

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In this Dec. 29, 2015 file photo, the boat docks are seen at the Great Salt Lake at Antelope Island in Utah. (Chris Detrick/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP)

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