The potash canals in Utah’s salt flats have become a case of Instagram vs. reality

The canals still draw attention, but fewer visitors, after installation of highway barrier, “No trespassing” signs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The myth of the Bonneville potash canals. Photos and videos of people paddleboarding and swimming in them have drawn hundreds of thousands of views on Instagram, but are they as exotic as they look, or are they toxic? The water is an unnatural green-blue shade and though they stand in stark and beautiful contrast to the unending flat, white salt desert, they are definitely not an oasis.

Wendover • Out of the interminable white plain of the Bonneville Salt Flats springs a cerulean blue oasis. It’s a river poured from Caribbean waters that streams like a vibrant, silky ribbon through the monotony of the stark, dry desert. It’s an enchanted passage that leads straight to the heart of a range of majestic purple mountains, aptly called the Silver Island Mountains.

Or so social media would have you believe.

The mystical river is actually a potash canal, used for the mining of potassium and magnesium for fertilizer. It doesn’t lead to the mountains, but to shallow potash pools, where the brine will eventually evaporate, leaving behind a trove of minerals. Still, when images and videos of people paddling and swimming in its seemingly ethereal waters first popped on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook in 2020, the canal went viral.

The legend lives on today, even if reality no longer lives up to expectation — and perhaps never really did.

“What it looks like in person versus what the people posted, it’s like not even the same thing,” said Cody McCoy, a captain with the Department of Public Safety who until a few months ago patrolled that area as a lieutenant with the Utah Highway Patrol. “... I mean, you get it in the right shot, the right photograph, it looks really desirable and like a really nice, cool place to go visit.

“But it’s out in the salt. It’s pretty dirty. And it’s, like, wastewater [or] whatever the potash plant uses.”

The term potash is derived from the first way the potassium was extracted. The canal actually carries a brine that streams off the eastern side of the salt flats. While it is very salty, it likely isn’t toxic.

McCoy said it and other canals like it have been running through the Salt Flats for as long as he can remember and no tourists ever stopped at them. That all changed in the spring of 2020 when the hatchling coronavirus pandemic sent people in droves both to social media and the outdoors while simultaneously shutting down travel and work.

Suddenly the canal, which stops just short of intersecting with Interstate 80 about 13 miles east of Wendover, became an exotic destination.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A vibrant blue canal of potash, used to extract valuable minerals from rich brines coursing through them extends into the Bonneville Salt Flats, garnering unwanted recreation attention in June of 2020.

“Up until they posted that picture, to my knowledge, it was never an issue,” McCoy said. “And then once that hit, it was just like, holy cow, you know? Everybody was headed out there.”

One of those people was Scott Taylor, a hobby photographer and videographer from Magna. He and a friend drove out to the canal in June 2020 after Taylor saw a picture of the canal online and realized it was right in his backyard.

They knew they must be in the right place when they spotted, standing out amidst the endless expanse of white, a woman in a bikini.

“So we stopped, and sure enough there was that canal we were looking for,” he said, “and people were out there paddleboarding and kind of swimming on the edges.”

Taylor took out his drone and captured a scene straight out of a high-end magazine shoot. Beautiful people paddling on and playing next to a serene strand of water that stretches for miles through a beach as white as the shores of Mykonos. So what if it was actually salt, not sand? Who cares that the blue color likely comes from a dye added to make the water evaporate faster?

The video has 102,000 views on YouTube. Typically Taylor’s videos nab little more than a hundred sets of eyeballs. Likewise, an aerial photo of the canal posted on the Nature account on Instagram, which showcases photos of, well, things in nature, received 123,000 likes.

Two weeks ago, Instagram user @vickipicklewilson posted a photo of the canal with the caption: “Yes!!!! Sign me up!! Added to my Bucket List.”

The Utah Office of Tourism must be reveling in the exposure, right? Not so much, said Bianca Lyon, the tourism office’s community and partner relations director. She said the reasons for deterring people from visiting the area are numerous.

Though the canal runs through a mix of private property, State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) land, and public lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, it is leased and managed by Intrepid Potash. People recreating in the water could create both operational and liability issues for Intrepid Potash. A call and emails to Intrepid Potash were not returned.

In addition, people pulling off and onto an interstate, for which the speed limit is 80 mph, is unsafe at best, according to McCoy. And, many of the cars that go there end up getting stuck.

So, when VisitUtah gets questions about where they can go to take a video like Taylor’s, the agency tries to direct them to alternate Instagrammable attractions, like the Great Salt Lake.

“We try to take those opportunities to educate folks about what is safe, what isn’t,” Lyon said. “We try to manage expectations because sometimes those can be a little bit, you know, misaligned with reality.”

Two years later, the reality is that the canal isn’t as attractive as it once was.

Few people visit the canal and even fewer play in it. Some are deterred by a cable barrier that the Utah Department of Transportation installed along the northern shoulder of I-80 last year to hinder spontaneous pull-overs there and elsewhere along the highway. The fence starts about 10 miles east of the canal and extends another three miles past it to the Salt Flats rest area.

Those who dare to drive out to it anyway are greeted with no less than half a dozen no-trespassing signs. They’ll find the water, when it’s there, is a little less cerulean blue these days and more a seemingly unnatural shade of teal, like antifreeze mixed with Aggie Blue ice cream. It can be eerie in its stillness.

Plus, they still have a good chance of getting stuck.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) No trespassing sings are placed by the Bonneville potash canals, pictured on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. Photos and videos of people paddleboarding and swimming in them have drawn hundreds of thousands of views on Instagram, but are they as exotic as they look, or are they toxic? The water is an unnatural green-blue shade and though they stand in stark and beautiful contrast to the unending flat, white salt desert, they are definitely not an oasis.

Sheryl Kingsley of Clearfield found that out one day this spring when she took her cousin, who was visiting from out of town, out to explore the Salt Flats. When they drove by the canal, Kingsley, a paddleboarder, remembered the beautiful images she’d seen on Facebook. After checking that the surrounding salt plains were dry, they decided to see it for themselves.

It wasn’t quite what they envisioned, she said.

“We pulled up to it and we literally left my car running and we went over the berm and it’s just full of trash. It has, you know, bottles and rubber tires,” she said. “And it was just puddles and it wasn’t even liquid except at the very beginning when you’re right by the freeway and it’s still very (shallow). Like, you wouldn’t even go to your ankle.”

They spent five minutes exploring the canal. When they returned to the car, it had already sunk into the mud created by canal seepage.

She learned a lesson that day: A picture of the canal may be worth 100,000 likes, but a tow 50 feet away from it is worth $600.

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