‘Pounded by wave after wave after wave’: How shallow Utah Lake can become dangerous

Local News

Courtesy: Utah County Sheriff’s Office

UTAH COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – On Sunday, officials found the bodies of 33-year-old Jorge Anica, and his brother, 21-year-old Manuel Anica, on Utah Lake. The two were out jet-skiing on Saturday evening and never returned home.

The cause of the brothers’ death has not yet been determined.

Just over a year ago, Priscilla Bienkowski, 18, and Sophia Hernandez, 17, died while tubing on the lake when a strong gust of wind created dangerous conditions.

Utah Lake is one of the three top lakes in the state to claim boaters’ lives, Joshua Holt, Park Manager at Utah Lake State Park, tells ABC4.

“I think the biggest thing people need to know and understand is how much weather influences the conditions of the lake,” he explains. “Utah Lake is 24 miles long and 13 miles wide, and we don’t have a depth over 12 feet, so we’re a really shallow lake. And waves and wind are what cause those dangerous conditions out there.”

He says 15 mile per hour winds on Utah Lake can cause swells as big as three feet, while 40 mile per hour winds can cause waves as big as 10 to 12 feet. To put that into perspective, Holt says waves like these make the park’s boat hit the bottom of the lake.

“So even if people could stand up in those situations, the whole lake is a high surf area at that point, and you just get pounded by wave after wave after wave.”

And those swells can occur in a matter of minutes since there is nothing on the water to block the wind, he explains.

“The highest that I can remember because of wind, we had three feet of water move from the north end of the lake to the south end of the lake, so the north end became three feet shallower and the south end became three feet deeper.

Wave size is determined by three main factors, he explains.

“The strength of the wind, how long it’s been blowing, and the fetch. The fetch is the distance of open water that the wind has been blowing over. Because of how shallow the lake is, it doesn’t take a lot for those winds to move a lot of water.”

Many people are aware that Utah Lake is a shallow lake, and Holt believes that can lead to complacency when it comes to safety.

“A lot of people stay, well if I get in trouble, I’ll just stand up. Well, the lake isn’t actually that shallow, but if it were, you couldn’t actually just stand up in some of these weather circumstances where the waves were really tall,” he states. “It would be almost like going to the beach and standing in the water there in those little two-foot waves coming in on the beach. It’s pretty hard to stand your ground against those.”

“So many people know we are that shallow lake, but it’s not so shallow that you can just stand up and get out of any situation you get into,” Holt adds.

When it comes to the temperature of the lake, hypothermia can be a concern. Holt says that he can’t say for certain that temperature had anything to do with Saturday’s deaths on the lake, but it definitely could have played a factor. The circumstances around the brothers’ deaths are still up in the air.

“We don’t know any of the underlying conditions that may have caused whatever happened,” he states.

To help keep people safe on the sometimes unpredictable lake, Holt recommends checking Utah Lake State Park’s Facebook page, as well as weather for the day before starting out. He says he will post any wind warnings from the National Weather Service on the Facebook page, though people may already be out on the lake by the time these are posted.

If you see clouds forming or a weather pattern approaching, it’s time to head back to shore, he states.

“Other than that, checking the local weather report for the day and knowing what conditions may arise,” is important, he says. “A lot of the time you can see storms build up on the North end of the lake and if you see those, it’s pretty much time to get off if you’re not an experienced boater and know that you’re not okay in some rough weather.”

Holt says with COVID-19, the lake has seen an influx of people with little experience boating, and while he is happy to see new people coming out and recreating, it’s important for them to learn some boating safety tips.

“Inexperience leads to a lot of issues as well. People not knowing what their capabilities are on a paddleboard or on a kayak,” he explains.

He recommends people visit boating.utah.gov, which includes links to boating sites so people can become familiar with basic boating education that can be helpful in dangerous circumstances that could arise.

Additionally, Holt recommends wearing life jackets on the lake, letting people know where you’re going and when you plan to return, and not drinking alcohol while boating. He says just as you can get a DUI from driving under the influence, the same consequences apply for doing the same on a boat.

Get Utah’s latest news sent to your inbox! Click here to subscribe to the free ABC4 daily newsletter.

“If you follow those things, it increases your chances of survival if something were to happen.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Utah Coronavirus

More Coronavirus Updates


More In Focus

Justice Files

More Justice Files