Speed ​​racers battle as Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats grow thin

weekend • In the Utah desert, a treeless expanse of pristine white salt crystals has long lured daredevil racers, filmmakers and social media-obsessed tourists. It’s so flat that on certain days visitors swear they can see the curvature of the earth.

A remnant of a prehistoric lake bed that is one of the many otherworldly landscapes of the American West, the gleaming white terrain of the Bonneville Salt Flats serves as the racetrack for world land speed records and as a backdrop for films such as Independence Day and The Fastest Indian World.”

But it’s getting thinner and thinner as those who treasure it cry out for changes to save it.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) A visitor to the Bonneville Salt Flats poses for photos on Saturday, October 8, 2022 near Wendover, Utah. The salt is thinning as climate change drags the West into its third decade of drought, but it’s unclear how that will affect seasonal flooding patterns, which the landscape depends on to maintain its size and footprint.

Research has consistently shown that the saline water in the aquifer beneath the plains is depleted faster than nature can replenish it. As nearby groundwater replaces the mineral-rich brine, evaporation yields less salt than historical cycles of flooding and evaporation have left in the landscape.

It has thinned out by about a third in the last 60 years. The total area has shrunk to about half of its 1994 peak size. The crust keeps tires cool at high speeds and provides an ideal surface for racing—unless seasonal flooding doesn’t recede or leaves an unstable layer of salt in its wake. Racers struggle to find a track long enough to hit record speeds with just 8 miles of track, compared to 13 miles a few decades ago.

Scientists largely agree that years of overdrafting of the aquifer by nearby potash mining caused the problem, but insist there is no clear evidence that simply paying the mining company to return water to the area is what caused the problem harmful human activities such as mining minerals or driving race cars.

Potash is a potassium-based salt used primarily worldwide as a fertilizer for crops such as corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat. It is mined in more than a dozen countries around the world, mostly from prehistoric lake beds like Bonneville’s.

It is mined in other iconic salt flats, including Chile, where thickness does not decrease in a similar fashion.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) State geologist collects water samples at the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah on Tuesday, September 13, 2022. The world-famous area’s glistening white salt shrinks near the Utah-Nevada line.

In Utah, after three decades of studying the salt flats, nothing has slowed the deterioration. But officials are funding a new study while trying to find a solution. Researchers are trying to figure out why the salt is fading and what can be done to stop it. As part of a $1 million research project led by the Utah Geological Survey, scientists are collecting data to understand the impacts of climate change, racing, salt remediation and operating the mine on leased federal land on the Salt Flats’ conservation .

The salt is thinning as climate change drags the West into its third decade of drought, but it’s unclear how that will affect seasonal flooding patterns, which the landscape depends on to maintain its size and footprint.

Dennis Sullivan, an automaker and racer who set a land speed record with his 1927 Model T street roadster, is boiling over in frustration. His organization, the Salt Flats Racing Association, believes that the potash mining company that extracts minerals from the flats is the primary reason for the aquifer’s depletion. But instead of pointing the finger in that direction, he and other racers are blaming the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area and is required by federal law to even out multiple uses and preserve it now and into the future.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) A car drives along the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah on August 13, 2016. The crust keeps tires cool at high speeds and provides an ideal surface for racing—unless seasonal flooding doesn’t recede or leaves an unstable layer of salt in its wake.

To save the landscape, Sullivan says the US government must find $50 million over 10 years to pay mining company Intrepid Potash to return saline water it took from the land back to the plains pours. He resents that more time and money is spent on research when the solution is clear to him.

“In the world I come from, you study something, you figure out what changes to make, you make the changes and then you go back and study it again to see if the changes affected it have,” Sullivan said. “It’s ridiculous to just keep studying it until you do something.”

(Associated Press) The Blue Flame conducts a recent test run on November 4, 1970 at Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah.

The fragile landscape has become less reliable for racers, who had to cancel “Speed ​​Week” events scheduled for this fall after the salt flats flooded, leaving them not enough room to continue.

Although racers insist the answer is obvious, scientists claim there is no clear evidence that simply returning saltwater will reverse the effects of extraction and preserve the salt flats.

Sullivan doesn’t blame Intrepid Potash; there is a lease agreement with the federal government. He says land managers have not invested in preserving the landscape or replenishing the salt that was taken from it.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) Intrepid Potash pumps brine into a channel at the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah on Monday, August 29, 2022. The mining company uses a process called solar evaporation mining, which involves pumping water into the ground to dissolve minerals and then transporting it through canals to ponds, where evaporation leaves behind a valuable potassium salt called potash.

Intrepid Potash did not respond to questions from The Associated Press.

Jeremiah Bernau, a geologist working with the Utah Geological Survey on the study, said the mining company has already poured salt and it’s unclear if that’s the answer.

A 2016 study found that the areas where races are organized are the most prone to thinning. Simply put, it changes how water can flow through the crust, Bernau said.

“Each use will have some sort of impact on it. It’s just sorting them out, understanding how big these impacts are, and what we can do to mitigate or understand them,” Bernau said on a recent tour of the area, accompanied by reporters, when he was the fat one and the depth of the salt was measured by the aquifer.

“My work tries to understand how this works and what actions we can take to help preserve this landscape,” he said.

Supporters of the ongoing study hope that if successful, the federal government will return more salt to prevent conflict and allow racers and miners to carry on as before.

If the study shows the salt deposits are effective, Utah state geologist Bill Keach expects racers will use the information to push for federal funding to keep the project going.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) Record low water levels are observed at the Bonneville Salt Flats marina near Salt Lake City on Monday, August 29, 2022. Concerns are growing about the future of the treeless expanse of salt crystals, and another study has been launched as researchers try to determine the cause and solution.

When the Utah legislature gave the initiative the green light in 2019, it committed $5 million on the condition that the federal government also provide funds to return the salt water needed to preserve the salt crust.

Rep. Steve Handy, a Republican who led the effort, said racer lobbyists initially suggested the federal government would match Utah’s investment with an additional $45 million and give the program the $50 million that required to maintain status quo, according to Sullivan and other racers.

US Rep. Chris Stewart, who represents the area, assured Handy his office is working to secure the funds. Without hard evidence, salt deposits would restore the crust, the $45 million didn’t materialize, but Stewart said in a statement that he “remains absolutely committed to finding science-based solutions” to save the crust.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) The Intrepid Potash Channel is shown Monday, August 29, 2022 at the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah. Potash is a potassium-based salt used primarily worldwide as a fertilizer for crops such as corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat. It is mined in 13 countries around the world, mostly from prehistoric lake beds like that of Bonneville.

Utah recovered most of the funding after failing to receive matching federal funding.

“They’re doing what they can with $1 million, which hasn’t spread far enough,” Handy said, noting that it’s ultimately the federal government’s job, not Utah’s, to administer the country.

But while solutions and the extent of responsibility of various parties are disputed, no one denies that the landscape is a gem worth preserving. When you kneel down, the crust of fused crystals looks like popcorn. From a distance, the surface looks like a moon and attracts hundreds of visitors daily, some of whom come in colorful dresses in search of the perfect picture at sunset.

“The fact that you can walk out here and see this huge, white area with such a beautiful texture on the crust. It unleashes something, perhaps more original in you,” said Bernau, looking into the distance.

(Rick Bowmer | Associated Press) Jeremiah Bernau, a Utah State geologist, holds salt crystals Monday, August 29, 2022 at the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah. The world-famous area’s glistening white salt shrinks near the Utah-Nevada line.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2022/11/05/utahs-salt-flats-are-shrinking/ Speed ​​racers battle as Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats grow thin

Justin Scacco

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