In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told of a wise man who built his house on rock. It was solid and did not fall. A foolish man built his house on sand. The rains came down, the streams rose, the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
Utah has a great expanse of sand and mud surrounding the Great Salt Lake, and the temptation to build upon those unstable foundations has become nearly irresistible in recent years. Our experience as archaeologists and geomorphologists working around the lake tells us that, as Jesus warned in the Bible, a house built on these lake-margin sands and muds will fall with a great crash.
In our work we have studied the relationships between the ancient cultures of Utah and the environments that they faced. The rise in the Great Salt Lake in the early 1980s afforded us a glimpse of how the Fremont and Shoshonean peoples lived and foraged in the marshlands surrounding the lake.
When the lake rose it flooded the sites left by the earlier people, and when it receded erosion exposed hundreds of camps, dwellings and dozens of sacred burial locations. The homes and camps had long been abandoned, as fluctuations of the lake level had at times inundated the villages, and at times left them far from the marshes the people relied on for food. Unlike us and the modern structures we build, a move of a few miles was not catastrophic for the villagers, who could construct new homes in a matter of days.
As archaeologists, we were also deeply involved in efforts to protect our modern infrastructure from the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake in the 1980s. When the airport, railroad lines and freeways were endangered by rising waters, the state of Utah embarked on a massive project to build dikes and pumps to move water to the salt flats, where it would evaporate more quickly, buying time in case the waters continued to rise. Then, to the state’s great good fortune, the rising waters abated, and the airport and other critical facilities were spared.
However, as archaeologists, we know that there is no guarantee that the waters will not again rise. In fact there is every likelihood that they will again threaten the airport, the freeways and, yes, the new prison and proposed inland port. The Great Salt Lake has reached elevations of from 4,215 to 4,220 feet a number of times during the last 10,000 years. Large areas north of I-80 and west of the airport, where substantial portions of those projects lie, are at elevations of around 4,220 feet, and at some unknown future time will be subjected to flooding.
When that will occur is difficult to predict, given the uncertainties of shifting weather patterns related to climate change, but whether such a flood event happens in tens of years or hundreds of years, it will happen.
Knowing the dramatic fluctuations in the level of the lake as we do, we would not build anything of substance in the potentially affected areas of the new prison and inland port, and cannot support the kind of short-sighted planning that would commit many millions of taxpayer dollars to projects that will undoubtedly one day, perhaps soon, need to be bailed out.
And one other thing. There are thousands of incredibly significant archaeological sites ringing the Great Salt Lake, including many sacred burial locations, and they are nearly all buried, out of sight, beneath the windblown sands and water-carried silts and muds that comprise the modern ground surface.
Those sites are granted protection by state and federal law, and any development must ensure that possible damage or destruction of those sites be taken into account. At a very least, extensive subsurface exploration and remote sensing must be undertaken, lest these projects destroy the state’s prehistoric heritage as they shackle future generations with the costs of rebuilding that which has fallen with a crash.
Kevin T. Jones and David B. Madsen are the only two state archaeologists Utah has had. Madsen served from when the Legislature created the position in 1973 until 1994, when he moved to the Utah Geological Survey and headed the paleontology and paleoecology program. Jones served from 1994 until the Legislature eliminated the position in 2011. Madsen lives in Carson City, Nev., and Jones lives in Pleasant View, Colo.