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Bonneville racers push for $50 million to restore salt flats

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Convinced that a salt restoration program conducted in conjunction with the mining company that has removed millions of tons of salt from the Bonneville salt flats will return the unique landscape to its former glory, leaders from the Bonneville land-speed racing community have asked the state of Utah to chip in $5 million toward a $50 million fund for the program.

“We need to scale the salt laydown project that currently exists,” Mike Swenson, a lobbyist for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, told the Utah legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this month. “We’re asking for the state of Utah to put some skin in the game and to use that as an incentive for the federal government to give us the remaining $45 million.”

The $50 million, according to Swenson, will go toward improved infrastructure – new ponds, ditches, pipelines, and pumps – designed to move salt brine from south of Interstate 80, where Intrepid Potash retains it as a waste byproduct of its potash mining activities, to north of Interstate 80, where the salt originated and where racers congregate every year for Speedweek and other land-speed events.

“It’s all designed for more efficient extraction of water and potash,” Swenson said. “Tons of what we’re doing here is really water management.”

In addition to the federal and state money, Swenson and John Russell Dean, the president of Save the Salt, told the committee that the land-racing community would provide $2.5 million in total toward the salt restoration project. According to Dean, that money – about $250,000 each year – would come from both individual supporters and from companies allied with Save the Salt.

Arguing the racers’ cause before the committee was Utah State Representative Stephen Handy, who pointed out that the state legislature in 2016 passed a resolution that he introduced (HCR 8) calling on the Bureau of Land Management to come up with a plan to restore the Bonneville Salt Flats. That resolution followed a similarly worded letter from Governor Gary Herbert wrote to the BLM the year before, itself prompted by two straight years of Speedweek cancellations due to unusable salt flats. The FIA followed the resolution with its own call for the BLM to restore the salt flats.

According to both Swenson and Dean, the BLM is on board with the salt laydown project, as are Intrepid Potash officials, with whom Bonneville racers began negotiating in 2017. The 10-year project would expand a trial brine-pumping program that began in 1997 and returned an average of 1.2 million tons of salt over the next five years. Intrepid continued that program voluntarily from 2005 to 2012, returning about 380,000 tons of salt per year, then under BLM mandate since 2012, returning less than 600,000 tons of salt per year.

In total, Intrepid has returned about 10 million tons of salt to the salt flats, according to a University of Utah study on the shrinking of the salt flats released late last year. According to the same report, Intrepid – along with its potash mining predecessors at Bonneville – removed an estimated 17 million tons of salt from the salt flats over the last 60 years, accounting for roughly 30 percent of the total salt loss during that time.

Potash and potassium make up about three percent of what the mining company removes from the Bonneville Salt Flats. The rest, pure salt, actually makes for a stronger racing surface.

According to Swenson, the Bonneville racers hope the expanded program will put about 1.5 million tons of salt back on the salt flats every year. He said he’s not sure whether the plan will enable the racers to run a 13-mile track as they have in the past, but, “depending on how Mother Nature cooperates, yeah, we could be successful. I’m positive this will grow miles of track and make it thicker.”

However, Brenda Bowen, who led the University of Utah study, has expressed skepticism over the effectiveness of an expanded salt laydown program.

“The system is limited by the amount of available water, and fluxes of both solutes and water from the BSF system will drive changes in the solubility and saturation of evaporative phases,” she wrote in the report. As she told the Salt Lake Tribune, “There is a lot about it that we don’t know, and there are consequences of moving around water and salt at a scale that has never been done anywhere else.”

In addition, the BLM’s assessment of the five-year trial concluded it was an insufficient effort, and Stuart Gosswein of SEMA and Save the Salt has noted that underground aquifers, already depleted by decades of mining, absorb about 90 percent of the salt brine laid down on the salt flats, not nearly enough to make an impact on the salt thickness or on the expanse of the salt flats.

Swenson said the plan will involve constant monitoring. “We want to make sure it’s done in the right way for the racers and for the environment,” he said. “We want to use this money wisely. We’re aware that this is the taxpayer’s money, but we also think that Bonneville is worthy of spending some money, attention, and effort.”

The exact details of the plan and how the money will be distributed are still being hammered out and will be presented in a memorandum of understanding with the BLM sometime before the end of the state’s current legislative session, Swenson told the committee. According to Swenson, SEMA is currently in the process of working with the government in Washington, D.C., to get the $45 million in federal funding through a budget appropriations process, and he intends to secure that funding before the end of the year.