Like just about everything else associated with the extended drought, no one is sure whether the recent increase is the beginning of a new, wetter trend or a blip in a much longer dry cycle. But the climb in water elevation has been enough to begin altering both the look and the ecology of the lake, and has sent Great Salt Lake enthusiasts scurrying for their sailboats and favorite bird-watching perches.
"It's a break from the fever of drought," says Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake. "We're not back all the way yet. We're still below the [historic] average. But the dynamic is beginning to change. Life is beginning to emerge again because of the significant precipitation levels we've been receiving. We're able to see that."
The evidence: Dried out wetlands are once again turning soggy, with new pools creating more habitat for brine shrimp and insects - which, in turn, provide a bigger buffet for the lake's vast migratory bird population.
The new water is also covering huge tracts of lake bed given to spewing dusty concentrates, and it is beginning to overtake landmarks, such as artist Robert Smithson's famous Spiral Jetty, which is slowly being swallowed up in the lake's north arm, though it is still clearly visible from the air.
Finally, the increased water elevation is gradually lapping up mud flats that have linked Antelope, Stansbury and other islands with the mainland. Lake observers say another two or three feet will be needed to envelop them completely again, but significant amounts of ground have been submerged.
Significant is the operative word. The size of the Great Salt Lake increases almost exponentially as the water elevation rises. At its historic record-low in 1963-64 (4,191 feet), the lake covered just 950 square miles. At its historic high (4,212) in 1986-87, that figure increased to 3,300 square miles. At its 4,200-foot average elevation, the lake spreads out over 1,700 square miles.
Rising water brings both good and bad news for those who earn a living from the lake.
"It depends on who you are," says Rob Baskin, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "If you're a mineral extractor, it hurts business because you have to evaporate that much more water to get the minerals out. But if you're a brine shrimper, your boats run aground more often when the lake is low, so this is all good."
The owners of the Great Salt Lake's sailboat fleet are ecstatic.
"Back in October we were all expecting that we'd have to pull our boats and close the marina," says Dave Shearer, cruising chairman of the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club. "That, of course, has all changed. The water levels are looking really good and healthy, and that has equated with the excitement levels. Lots of shoals are now being covered up, and the Great Salt Lake Marina is now in pretty solid shape."
Shearer, who also does search-and-rescue work on the lake, says the number of boats that ran aground over the past two years was almost too high to count. The marina's boat count slipped from 304 (capacity) to 250 as owners pulled out for the deeper water of the West Coast. Now, most departing boats are able to head straight out on to the lake - as opposed to navigating a designated, deeper-water route - and even some larger boats are again venturing out.
"I know there have been a lot of problems associated with flooding," says Shearer, "but this has been nothing but good news for the Great Salt Lake."
Historically, the lake ebbs and flows with the snowmelt. What has created optimism is that the lake is a foot and a half higher than a year ago at this time, and that it has gained over a foot in just the past 30 days from low- and mid-mountain snowmelt.
With runoff from the five creeks (City Creek, Emigration, Parleys, Mill Creek, and Big and Little Cottonwood) and Bear River drainages not expected to exhaust themselves until late June and early July, respectively, there is more to come.
"All of that will continue to add volume to the Great Salt Lake," says U.S. Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney. "We don't have a good feel yet for how much - probably another half-foot, maybe a little less. But it is going to continue to go up."
"We just don't know," says Baskin. "This could be a one-year thing or it could be the start of a turnabout. Nobody really knows for sure."