Human activity — racing included — is shrinking the Bonneville Salt Flats, U. researcher says

Two years of research on unique ecosystem indicate speed racing, mining, government management and climate change may all be factors in depletion of salt crust

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah professor Brenda Bowen examines a salt samples she does research on the Bonneville Salt Flats, and the effects human activity has had on the salt crust. Friday, August 11, 2017.

After nearly two years of researching on the Bonneville Salt Flats, University of Utah geologist Brenda Bowen says she’s increasingly convinced that the ecosystem is more sensitive to human interactions than previously thought.

Bowen’s research still is incomplete — her first paper is expected out this fall, and a final report isn’t due until 2018. But the more data Bowen collects, she said, the more she’s convinced human activity is changing the landscape.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah professor Brenda Bowen examines a salt samples she does research on the Bonneville Salt Flats, and the effects human activity has had on the salt crust. Friday, August 11, 2017.

“To think that one part of the land use isn’t having an impact is overlooking the complexity of the system,” she said.

Bowen leads a multidisciplinary team of researchers investigating apparent changes in the Bonneville Salt Flats, which have shrunk in the past 30 years.

Since they began their studies in 2015 in response to outcry from car enthusiasts who use the landscape as a specialty race course, the scientists have investigated the flats’ weather, chemistry, geology, hydrology and even the microbial inhabitants.

Bowen said human interactions with the iconic landscape — including the land speed racing for which the flats are internationally known and the potash mine located near the race track — may be responsible for the changes. But the link between those interactions and changes to the landscape are less clear, she said.

Bowen said she also believes that natural processes, as well as climate change, are affecting the salt flats.

“It’s not really mysterious that the landscape is changing, because of course it’s changing. It would be more shocking to me if it weren’t changing,” she said. “It’s absolutely always changing, and many of these changes are linked to human activities, including racing.”

Bowen’s team planned to camp on the salt flats this weekend to collect samples of groundwater and observe the opening festivities for Speed Week, a yearly racing event which begins on Saturday. She and colleagues also plan to survey spectators at the event about their perceptions of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune Car tracks in the mud at the end of the road at Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway Monday January 2, 2017.

Louise Noeth, a spokeswoman for the Save the Salt Coalition, a group made up mostly of land speed racing enthusiasts, said it was “absolutely reasonable” to assume human activity affects the salt flats. But, Noeth said, the racing would not have a detrimental effect on the salt crust, had it not been weakened by decades of mineral extraction.

“I welcome what Brenda Bowen has to say,” Noeth said, “but she’s doing her study when Bonneville is on critical life support.”

Noeth said the land speed racing community does not blame Intrepid Potash, which extracts potassium from the salt flats, for the landscape’s decline. The company was doing what it was legally authorized to do, she said, and has cooperated with efforts to preserve the salt flats.

Rather, Noeth said, she believes mismanagement by the Bureau of Land Management is at least partly responsible for the salt flats’ condition.

 “If the BLM had been better stewards, she said, ”we wouldn’t be talking about this. There wouldn’t be that human harm. You can let people into Yosemite, but you wouldn’t let them clear-cut.”

Hannah Cowan, a spokeswoman for the BLM, said the agency stands by its decisions on managing the Bonneville Salt Flats. While the agency understands the racers’ concerns, Cowan said, the BLM has been charged with managing multiple uses — including land speed racing and potash extraction.

Until the BLM sees the results of Bowen’s study, Cowan said the agency does not plan to make any changes to its current management of the area.

“We’ve very supportive of the land speed racers and their concerns,” she said. “We understand that this is an important system to them, with generations of racers coming out and a lot of technology involved, and we respect that.”

Meanwhile, Noeth said, the racing community has taken matters into its own hands, by asking anyone who drives onto the salt flats during Speed Week to scrape the salt from their vehicles before departing.

“We’ve had so many of the average racers who feel powerless to try to do anything against the federal government or a mining concern,” she said. “That’s what this program is all about — it’s like every single racer stopped before they got off the salt and essentially wiped their feet off at the doormat.”

(Steve Griffin / Tribune file photo) Salt crumbles away at the end of the road at Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway, seen here in January 2017.

Additionally, Save the Salt has been negotiating with Intrepid Potash to increase the amount of salt water — one of the company’s waste products — now being pumped onto the Bonneville Salt Flats each spring in an effort to rebuild the salt crust.

The salt flats on the mine’s side of the highway, Noeth said, have plenty of salt to spare.

“Once you see that, you understand the imbalance,” she said. “You don’t need Brenda Bowen. You don’t need a scientist. All you need is your eyes and a little common sense.”

Several attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to reach Intrepid Potash, headquartered in Denver, for comment were unsuccessful.

Bowen said her team has no scientific data showing the salt water pumping is an effective method of growing the surface crust.  

“If they want a stable salt crust that’s always exactly the same, maybe they should build a stadium because in nature you’re always going to have changes,” Bowen said. “If you expect it to be static and the same, you’re going to be disappointed.”