Stop driving on exposed lake bed of Great Salt Lake, Utah agency says

Tire tracks from a vehicle traveling illegally on the exposed lake bed of the Great Salt Lake. Utah land managers say they are seeing an increase in illegal driving on the lake bed. (Utah Division of Forests, Fires and State Lands)

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SALT LAKE CITY – The shrinking Great Salt Lake has generated a newly exposed lake bed as it continues to sink to record lows.

It fell to an elevation of 4,189.4 feet, as of August 25, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. That’s nearly a foot below the previous record set last year. Every foot it falls has the potential to expose a few square miles of previously covered lake bed, experts with the Utah Division of Forests, Fires and Lands explained earlier this year.

Yet the Great Salt Lake is still a popular draw despite its decline, and state land managers say it’s leading to an increase in illegal driving on the exposed lake bed, causing “serious concern.”

“Driving on the lake bed not only disturbs the delicate crust, but it also has serious implications for wildlife, air quality and the sensitive (Great Salt Lake) ecosystem,” said Ben Stireman, Sovereign Lands Program Administrator for Utah Division. Forestry, Fire and State Lands, in a statement Thursday.

It is illegal to drive on exposed lake beds or navigable rivers in Utah without written permission. Both are considered state land, which means Utah handles the laws for the land areas.

The Utah Legislature amended the law earlier this year, clarifying that virtually all motor vehicles are prohibited by exposed lake beds or navigable rivers, including off-road vehicles. Violating the law is a Class B misdemeanor and can leave a person liable for civil damages, according to division officials.

This also applies to other popular recreation areas such as:

  • Utah lake
  • Jordan
  • Moab Swap Lands
  • The Utah part of Bear Lake
  • Portions of the Bear, Colorado, and Green Rivers

But the law change was specifically made this year with the Great Salt Lake in mind. The dust from the Great Salt Lake contains toxic heavy metals that can be blown into communities near the lake, causing serious air quality problems. Driving on the exposed lake bed can disrupt the lake bed’s natural salt pan that would otherwise trap toxic dust in the ground.

“This was designed to ensure that the increasingly exposed lake bed does not break up,” said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, sponsor of the bill, in an interview in April. “If you break that crust, the underlying dust is more easily airborne. … It’s potentially a serious air quality issue.”

State land managers add that there is also a risk of vehicles getting stuck in soft mud, resulting in “difficult” vehicle recovery that increasingly damages the lake bed. This is why they remind visitors that they cannot drive on the exposed lake bed.

State law does not apply to lands within the boundaries of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Tooele County, which are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The office generally allows motorized recreation with some seasonal closures, especially when the salt is wet in the spring.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning journalist who covers general news, the outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a transplant from Utah via Rochester, New York.

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