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Union Pacific could have avoided causeway emergency

Published November 11, 2013 7:44 am

Causeway emergency was avoidable.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you mess with nature, nature will mess with you.

That is an extreme oversimplification of the incredibly complicated issue regarding possible closure of a culvert in the railroad causeway crossing the Great Salt Lake. The manmade culvert has been altered enough, by nature, that Union Pacific now fears its tracks could fail and a train could derail soon if it isn't allowed to fill in the culvert.

Messing with nature, in this case, began more than 50 years ago when the Southern Pacific Railroad (later merged with Union Pacific) replaced a wooden trestle with a causeway from Promontory Point to the west side of the lake. The trestle had allowed for an exchange of water between the north and south arms of the lake, keeping the north end fresher and the south end saltier, so two culverts were created in the causeway to maintain some water exchange.

Over the years that exchange has become more crucial for several reasons. If the salinity on the south end drops too low, the water becomes less effective for the $200 million mineral extraction industry and less hospitable to brine shrimp. The shrimp themselves have become a $100 million industry on the lake, and more importantly they are a key element in the lake ecosystem. Without the shrimp, the lake would not support the huge bird populations that rely on the lake, which is one of the most important migratory bird habitats in the country.

In recent years the tracks over the culverts started sinking. One of the breaches had to be closed last year, and now the railroad wants to close the other. Everyone, including Union Pacific, recognizes that closing it is not a permanent solution, so the railroad is working on a new plan to create a smaller version of the old trestle, this time a 180-foot-long bridge in the middle of the causeway.

But that idea has not been fully studied by the Army Corps of Engineers and the state agencies that oversee the lake and its water quality. It's possible, given the complicated hydrodynamics, that the exchange would still be insufficient. And, just to close the culvert, the railroad must comply with the federal Clean Water Act by applying for certification with the state's Water Quality Division. Union Pacific has yet to file that application.

The railroad has, in essence, forced the regulators' hands by not moving fast enough to solve a problem that is many years in the making. Union Pacific is itself a giant economic presence, pumping $290 million into Utah's economy since 2007 and providing 1,400 jobs. That would be seriously affected if the 15 trains crossing the lake daily had to be diverted through Las Vegas or Pocatello.

Bottom line: If Union Pacific complies with federal law, it should be allowed to close the culvert and keep the trains running. But it simply has to do better to detail its bridge solution not just for regulators but for the public in general. Messing with nature should not be taken lightly. Anything less is no way to run a railroad.