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Search for solutions spurs race to save Utah salt flats

Search for solutions spurs race to save Utah salt flats

In the Utah desert, a treeless expanse of pristine white salt crystals has long attracted daredevil sprinters, filmmakers and social media-obsessed tourists. It’s so flat that some days visitors swear they see the curvature of the earth.

The shimmering white terrain of the Bonneville Salt Flats, a remnant of a prehistoric lakebed that is one of many otherworldly landscapes of the American West, serves as a race track for world land speed records and backdrop for movies like “Independence Day” and “The World’s Fastest Indian.

But he is getting thinner and thinner as those who cherish him cry out for changes to save him.

Research has time and again shown that the brackish water in the aquifer beneath the apartments is depleting faster than nature can replenish it. As nearby groundwater replaces the mineral-rich brine, evaporation produces less salt than historical cycles of flooding and evaporation left on the landscape.

It has thinned by about a third over the past 60 years. The overall footprint has shrunk to about half its maximum size in 1994. The crust keeps tires cool at high speeds and provides an ideal surface for racing – unless seasonal flooding recedes or leaves behind an unstable layer of salt. Racers are struggling to find a track long enough to hit record speeds with just 8 miles of track compared to 13 miles (20 kilometers) decades ago.

Scientists largely agree that years of over-drafting of the aquifer by nearby potash mining was to blame for the problem, but insist there is no hard evidence that simply paying the mining company to return water to the area will fix it amid detrimental human activities like mining minerals or driving race cars.

Potash is a potassium-based salt primarily used around the world 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.

It is extracted from other emblematic saltworks, including in Chile, where the thickness does not decrease in the same way.

In Utah, after three decades of saltworks studies, nothing has slowed the deterioration. But officials are funding a new study as they try to find a solution. Researchers are trying to figure out why salt fades and what can be done to stop it. As part of a million dollar research project led by the Utah Geographic Survey, scientists are collecting data to understand the effects of climate change, racing, repaving salt and operating on federally leased land on the Salt Flats Preservation.

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

Frustration boils over for Dennis Sullivan, an automaker and racer who set a land speed record in his 1927 Model T street roadster. His organization, the Salt Flats Racing Association, is convinced that the potash mining company that mines the minerals from the flats is the main reason for the depletion of the aquifer. But rather than point the finger in that direction, he and other runners blame the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area and is required by federal law to balance multiple uses and preserve it now and in the future. the future.

To save the landscape, Sullivan says, the US government needs to find $50 million over 10 years to pay Intrepid Potash, the mining company, to dump the brackish water it scooped from the land into the apartments. He bristles at seeing more time and money spent on research when the solution is clear to him.

“In the world I’m from, you study something, you figure out what changes you need to make, you make the changes, and then you go back and study it again to see if your changes had any effect on it. “Sullivan said. “It’s ridiculous to keep studying it until you do something.”

The fragile landscape has become less reliable for runners, who have had to cancel “Speed ​​Week” events scheduled for this fall after the salt flats flooded and left them without enough space to continue.

Although the runners insist the answer is obvious, scientists argue that there is no hard evidence that simply returning brackish water will reverse the effects of mining and maintain the salt flats.

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

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

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

A 2016 study found that the areas most susceptible to thinning were where races are held. Simply put, it changes the way water can flow through the crust, Bernau said.

“Each use is going to have some sort of impact on her. It’s just trying to categorize them, understanding the magnitude of that impact and what we can do to mitigate or understand it,” Bernau said during a recent visit to the region, where journalists accompanied him as he measured the thickness of the salt and the depth of the aquifer.

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

Proponents of the study currently underway hope that, if successful, the federal government will consider returning more salt to pre-empt conflicts and allow runners and miners to continue as they have.

If the study shows salt depositing is effective, Utah state geologist Bill Keach said he expects runners to use that information to apply for federal funding to continue the project.

In 2019, when Utah lawmakers gave the initiative the go-ahead, they allocated $5 million, on the condition that the federal government also provide funding, to return the brackish water needed to preserve the salt crust.

Rep. Steve Handy, a Republican who led the effort, said Riders lobbyists initially suggested the federal government would respond to Utah’s investment with an additional $45 million, giving the program the $50 million. dollars that Sullivan and other runners say are needed to maintain status. what.

U.S. Representative Chris Stewart, who represents the region, assured Handy that his office was working to secure the funds. Without hard evidence that the salt layer would restore the crust, the $45 million failed to materialize, but Stewart said in a statement that he “remains absolutely committed to finding science-based solutions” to save the crust. .

Utah picked up the majority of the funding after getting no matching federal funds.

“They’re doing what they can with $1 million, which isn’t widespread enough,” Handy said, noting that it was ultimately the federal government’s job, not Utah’s job, to handle the earth.

But while the solutions and the extent to which different parties are responsible are debatable, no one disputes that the landscape is a jewel worth preserving. On your knees, the crust of melted crystals looks like popcorn. From a distance, the surface looks like the moon and attracts hundreds of visitors each day, some coming in brightly colored sunset dresses in search of the perfect picture.

“The fact that you can come out here and see this vast white expanse with such a nice texture on the crust. It releases something, maybe more primitive in yourself,” Bernau said, looking away.

The Independent Gt

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
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