Utah’s famous Bonneville Salt Flats are disappearing

First Published      Last Updated May 21 2016 05:06 pm

The Bonneville Salt Flats are quiet today.

That otherworldly silence isn't all that uncommon in a place that is historically renowned for its inability to support life. But this week, it's exceptional.

More than 60 speed junkies had planned to converge on the salt flats to test their racing equipment in advance of next month's Speed Week — one of the racing community's most anticipated annual events.

Instead, they have packed up and gone home.

And Speed Week's Aug. 8 start is in jeopardy. The Southern California Timing Association, the sponsor of the event, will decide this weekend whether to cancel for the second year in a row.

Depending on who you talk to, it's an issue of not enough salt or too much water — or neither.

"I was actually out there for the past three or four days," Russ Eyers, a member of the timing association, said on Thursday. "I was doing the surveying and grading, trying to find a place to hold a meet, and we just didn't get there."

There's no place to race.

And a decades-long tradition in Utah's West Desert — an economic engine and, perhaps, an ecological harbinger for the Great Salt Lake ecosystem itself — is at risk.

At the Salt Flats Cafe, Jorge Escobedo says the racers' conversation turns to one topic: the decline and eventual disappearance of the salt flats.

"They know it's going to happen," he said. "They just don't know when."

Debating the cause • The problem, Eyers believes, lies at the crossroads of inclement weather and years of environmental abuse.

Heavy rains both last year and this past spring caused a layer of mud to flow down from the surrounding mountains onto the salt flats, covering roughly 6 miles of the area usually converted into a race course.

That by itself wouldn't be a deal breaker were it not for salt depletion, Eyers said.

Mineral extraction on the salt flats started in the early 1900s. Over the decades, Eyers believes, the mining industry has removed so much salt that the salt flats have begun to shrink. If the racers had enough room, he said, they would have just moved this weekend's course away from the mudslide.

But the salt flats aren't large enough to accommodate that anymore, he said.

And the depth and quality of the salt crust has declined, Eyers added. In the 1940s and '50s, he said, the crust was an average of two to three feet thick.

"There is no place on that salt flat now where there is anything more than two inches," he said.

Thin salt becomes additionally problematic because there is a layer of sticky, almost quicksand-like mud just below the salt crust. When the salt is too thin and too soft, cars — or even people — can fall through and get stuck.

Racers need a large, strong, healthy salt flat. And this week, between the rain and the mud and the thinned-out salt, that didn't happen.

Speed Week, which is just three weeks away, poses a much bigger challenge.

Eyers is part of the crew who helps set up and design the race courses. A typical speed week involves six: 9-mile courses for the fastest racers who want to push 400 to 500 mph, a slightly shorter course for those going 300 mph, two more 3-mile courses for 200 mph runs, and a "mini" 2-mile course for people who want to see just how fast they can go on, for example, a folding bike that fit in their suitcase.

The salt flats are "just a unique place," said Dennis Sullivan, president of the local Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, which had planned the trial meet this weekend.

"It's the only place," he explained, where racers have enough flat space to safely decelerate after achieving speeds of 400 miles per hour, or even more.

As racing on the salt flats has become more difficult, Sullivan said, racers have turned to other venues. Some have tried airport runways.

But speed records these days are set at other geologic phenomena, including the Black Sand Desert in Nevada, Sullivan said.

There, he said, race cars leave deep ruts in the sand, preventing additional racers from following them immediately afterward. To host a world-class event like Speed Week, he said, you need the Bonneville Salt Flats.

"If we could take it somewhere else, people would have already looked there," Sullivan said. "We need thickness, length, purity. That's what we're battling for right now."


No simple solution • What's not clear, geologists say, is who or what the racing community will be fighting to restore the salt.

Bill White, a geologist who retired from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2007 after dedicating much of his career to studying the salt flats, isn't sure about the cause of their decline — or even if there is such a deterioration.

The salt flats are an immensely complicated system no one fully understands, White said. And any decline that has taken place can't be blamed entirely on mining companies, including Morton Salt or Intrepid Potash, extracting too many minerals.

"There is change," he said, "but not necessarily decline."

Serious scientific study of the salt flats began in 1960, at about the same time the racers started to complain about deteriorating salt conditions.

Two more studies followed and found, much to everyone's alarm, that the salt flats did appear to be shrinking. In 1960, measurements found that the salt flats covered an area of roughly 38 square miles. In 1974, the same methodology found the salt flats covered 36 square miles. And in 1988, geologists measured 30 square miles of salt crust.

Those numbers led the BLM and U.S. Geological Survey to conclude that the flats were losing salt at an average rate of 1.1 percent per year.

Based on that conclusion, federal land managers arranged an experiment. A couple of mining companies, including Intrepid Potash, agreed to voluntarily pump the excess salt produced by their operations back out onto the salt flats where, hopefully, it would become re-integrated into the surface.

Initial estimates suggested that the salt crust's thickness would increase by two inches between 1997 and 2002.

But nothing happened.

Even after more intense monitoring started in 1988, there was no discernible change to the overall volume of salt, White said.

The size and shape of the area covered by salt did change, but seemed to fluctuate according to some indiscernible seasonal cycle loosely correlated with the weather. The salt never disappeared, White said, it just moved around.

The only salt that did actually vanish was the salt pumped over the flats — which, as of 2012, amounted to 9.8 million tons, according to the BLM.

The area's mining companies believe they are not the cause of Speed Week's recent problems. Only Morton and Intrepid responded to questions from The Salt Lake Tribune. A spokeswoman for Morton Salt said the company doesn't have any significant impact on salt levels, but didn't elaborate.

Underwater salt pool? • White has a theory as to where all that salt went: a huge saltwater aquifer beneath the salt flats.

During his research, White came to the conclusion that the salt flats were not, as so many people had long assumed, formed directly by the evaporation of salty runoff from the surrounding mountains, but rather by the evaporation of saltwater welling up from an aquifer.

The salt flats are located in a basin, just inches above the local water table.

"This is the lowest part of the West desert, so ground water discharges upward into the salt flats," he said. "You don't see it in the summer because it evaporates, but it pools up on top of the salt flats in the winter."

That interaction with the water table is further complicated by rainfall, White said, because when it rains, that water begins to dissolve the top part of the salt crust and causes the salt to wash back down into the aquifer. It will be deposited on the salt crust once again when the water table rises, he said, but during a rainy spell, the salt flats can appear to thin out and give way to the silty mud below.

The estimated size and scope of the saltwater aquifer is so immense, White said, that he doubts it's possible for the mines to take enough salt to make an appreciable difference.

Even if they could somehow extract all of the most desirable minerals contained within the entire underground reservoir, he said, they would still only remove eight percent of the salt dissolved within it. According to a recent economic study, five companies extract salt, magnesium, potash and other minerals in massive evaporation ponds, producing 4.4 million tons a year valued at $685 million and supporting almost 2,000 jobs.

What's more, White continued, is that the current estimates suggest the aquifer is so large it could absorb another 10 to 15 million tons of salt without difficulty.

"And that's where our two inches went," he said.

What all of this means, White said, is that salt isn't the mover and shaker that may or may not be behind the decline of the salt flats. The real issue, he said, is water.

"Water is the 800-pound gorilla in the room," he said. "I would say that water has the greatest impact out on the salt flats."

Weather permitting • The trouble with all the models and theories is that for the time being, they're just that — theories.

Geologists still aren't sure they can explain all the mechanisms — human made or not — that impact the salt flats' fluctuations.

The BLM, with the assistance of the University of Utah, plans to launch yet another study, expected to be complete by 2018.

In the meantime, White said, he sympathizes with the plight of the salt flat racers.

"All I can do is give them the facts and the conclusions we have drawn with those facts," he said. "And unfortunately, it's not a complete picture."

What he does know, White said, is that so far the weather this summer has been too wet to produce an adequate surface for safe racing.

"All I can do is wish them the best of luck with the weather," he said, "because that's nothing we can control."

The timing association continues to hold out hope that conditions on the salt flats will improve before Speed Week, but Eyers said that with all the international entries the competition has this year, the group will have to make some decisions soon.

"We don't want them to spend tens of thousands of dollars getting here, only to find out we have no track," he said.

Speed Week already has almost 600 paid pre-entries — which, if the weather cooperates, would make August's trials the largest in the decades-long history of the event.

If the weather doesn't cooperate, the racers won't be the only disappointed party.

Back at the Salt Flats Cafe, Escobedo worried that canceling Speed Week for two years in a row would have a much bigger impact on Wendover and area businesses.

"Last year was good, because even though Speed Week was canceled, they canceled later that week, and there were still a lot of people" in the area, he said. "This year, I bet, this year would be really hard."