An independent advocate for the environment.
Salt on New Wounds
The Great Salt Lake is a critically important oasis in the desert West, and one of the world’s most important habitats for waterbirds. But it won’t stay that way if we keep hacking pieces out of it.
Salt, which kills organisms when artificially added to almost anything, was a symbol of sterility even before Ulysses feigned madness by sowing it into his fields. Maybe that explains our traditional lack of appreciation for saline water bodies and the general perception that they are lifeless. There’s not one in North America that hasn’t been sliced, diced, polluted, and dewatered—none more grievously than the largest, Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Even as he celebrated its beauty in his essay “Dead Heart of the West,” Wallace Stegner described the lake as “a desert of water in a desert of salt and mud and rock.”
But the Great Salt Lake—which discharges its water only to the sky, vacillating in surface area between 601,600 and 1.5 million acres—is no “desert,” and it is anything but “dead.” It is a cauldron of life, by any standard North America’s single most important interior wetland for birds. At least 257 species breed or refuel here. Some five million waterfowl, representing 30 percent of the Pacific Flyway population, feed and nest in the lake’s 400,000 acres of marsh. And its five major bays have been designated globally Important Bird Areas (IBAs).
This is why organizations like the Friends of Great Salt Lake—with 15 partner groups, including the National Audubon Society—are fighting a proposal by Great Salt Lake Minerals Corporation (GSLM) to nearly triple its current operation, in which it lets natural evaporation render minerals from lake water. The company is seeking permission from the state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the EPA to dike off, fill, and thereby convert an additional 91,000 acres of the lake to evaporation ponds. A draft environmental impact statement is being prepared.
GSLM, which has a payroll of 350 and contributes $65 million a year to the Utah economy, is the world’s only source of virtually chloride-free, non-chemically manufactured sulfate of potash, an organic-food fertilizer and the company’s main product. It also makes salt for animal feed, de-icing, and water softening, and magnesium chloride for dust control and de-icing. “Our company was green before we knew what green was,” declared raw materials development manager Mark Reynolds last April when I visited the plant in Ogden, Utah. “Our trucks run on biodiesel. We have a cogeneration plant. We add no chemicals to our organic products. They’re useful and environmentally friendly.”
All this is true. What’s more, GSLM makes a major effort to be a good corporate citizen, supporting 14 agricultural research projects at university extension services around the nation, lavishly funding local charities, providing materials to the Boy Scouts to build nesting platforms, and allowing bird-census crews to launch boats from its property for easy access to the rich bay and delta of the Bear River, the largest river in the Western Hemisphere not collected by a sea. That’s why the company was genuinely shocked and hurt when environmentalists ganged up on it about its proposed expansion. Why would they care, especially when 80,000 of the 91,000 acres of new evaporation ponds would be built in the lake’s north arm (Gunnison Bay), bereft of freshwater sources and much less attractive to birds because a railroad causeway has sealed it off, making it too salty for most of the invertebrates that thrive in the rest of the lake?
After a power-point presentation by Reynolds and an impressive promotional video provided by Dave Hyams, my original GSLM contact, I asked for business cards. But Hyams’s card read “Solem & Associates.” He explained that he was a public-relations troubleshooter and that, when the scat first hit the fan two years ago, GSLM had contracted with his San Francisco-based firm to do damage control. He’d flown out from California to meet with me, and he hoped I wouldn’t do a “hatchet job.”
With that, Hyams introduced me to pond supervisor Jay Christensen, and the three of us toured the facility in Christensen’s truck. Like Reynolds (a Boy Scout leader), Christensen has been a pillar of the community, coaching Little League and serving on the Plain City Water District Board and the city council. He came to the company 37 years ago, looking for a “temporary job” and, as he likes to joke, is still looking. No industry ever had a happier employee. “The company bought my home,” he said. “It paid for all my children’s education; it bought me several vehicles. I think I’ve got the best job in the world.”
We drove along narrow, rock-lined dikes separating some 100 evaporation ponds that together comprise what used to be 22,000 acres of Bear River Bay. White mineral precipitation lining the edges looked like plowed snow and, farther out, jutted through foamy brine like icebergs. Twenty-one miles to the west, in Gunnison Bay, GSLM evaporation ponds have taken another 25,000 acres of the lake. That brine, saltier to begin with and made saltier in the western evaporation ponds, takes five days to flow across the bottom of the lake in a topless trench dug for that purpose. Because the brine is heavier than lake water, not much is lost; it’s a brilliant piece of engineering. When the brine reaches the southern tip of the bare, rugged Promontory Mountains, it’s pumped north, where gravity and additional pumps feed it through the pond system. First to settle out is the salt, then the sulfate of potash, and finally the magnesium chloride. Every day a train with at least 10 cars hauls these popular, useful products to markets around the nation.
Because the brine has been concentrated to the point that it can’t sustain invertebrates, the ponds are as dead as the remaining lake is wrongly imagined to be. Save for a few high California gulls and waterfowl headed to the intact part of Bear River Bay, I saw but three living creatures. It’s not that the company doesn’t care about birds. It is all for them, and would like to have more. It just doesn’t know much about birds or their needs.
Even the most rancorous expansion opponent would have warmed to Christensen when he spoke proudly and lovingly about “the family of crows” that had nested next to one of the evaporation ponds on a Boy Scout–built platform. At length we came abreast of them. They were ravens, but in a last, pathetic expression of the life force, they were indeed nesting. “Look—a hawk!” exclaimed Christensen when we encountered the other bird that wasn’t hurrying away from GSLM’s biological desert. It was a peregrine falcon, perched on a power pole—doubtless one of the 40 or so that nest in natural habitat around the lake.
“It’s easy to talk about the huge acreage that we’ll take for the expansion,” offered Hyams. “But 90 percent of those acres are on the west side, where there are no birds. Bear River Bay is where there’s wildlife. The question is: Can the wildlife adjust and move a few hundred yards north?” But when wildlife loses habitat it doesn’t just “move”; it dies, because other habitat is already occupied. The expansion will destroy an additional 8,000 acres of Bear River Bay and make what’s left more riverine and therefore less hospitable to waterbirds. Moreover, there’s a natural control by which evaporation diminishes as the lake level (and therefore surface area exposed to sun and air) recedes. But evaporation ponds impede this mechanism by taking water from the lake and spreading it over a wide, thin area.
For the 91,000 acres of the Great Salt Lake that it would convert to new ponds, GSLM has applied to take an additional 353,000 acre-feet of lake water annually—roughly 17 percent of the lake’s average recharge from rain and melting snow. That will draw down the level, already at a near-record low, to a point where Bear River Bay and the other global IBAs could be lost or damaged. And it will almost certainly provide coyotes, foxes, and raccoons with access to Gunnison Island. If that happens, the largest breeding population of white pelicans west of the continental divide, 20,000 birds in some years, is likely to be eliminated. When I reminded Hyams about this he stated, incorrectly: “There are certain times of the year right now where there’s a land bridge to Gunnison Island. Yet the birds do fine.”
The lake’s productivity and beauty came into sharper focus for me when I walked the beach at the state-owned Great Salt Lake Marina on the southern shore. To the east rose the snow-draped Wasatch Front with the high, 18,000-year-old line etched by lashings from the lake’s extinct parent—12.8-million-acre Lake Bonneville. To the north the brown peaks of Antelope Island jutted from a collage of silver, blue, green, and turquoise that made the near-shore Caribbean, which I’d left 48 hours earlier, seem drab. At my feet waves lapped at foot-high windrows of brine-fly larval cases. In both life stages these flies—along with equally ubiquitous brine shrimp—refuel southbound and northbound migrants for their arduous journeys. Midway between South America and northern Canada and sandwiched between the Rockies and the desert, the lake could not be more perfectly situated for migratory birds. Close to half of the continent’s snowy plovers, eared grebes, and Wilson’s phalaropes depend on the lake’s richness.
The fly larvae clean up detritus on the lake’s bottom. The shrimp graze on suspended algae, depleting it through the season (thereby improving water clarity) until late fall—when they switch from bearing live young to laying eggs that encyst, maintaining the species through multi-year drought when it occurs and, always, through winter, when water temperatures as low as 24 degrees Fahrenheit kill all adults. Fifty cysts will fit on a wet pinhead, and yet 120 boats, deploying booms like those used to contain oil spills, take some 20 million pounds a year—mostly to be shipped dry to Asia and South America, where they’re hatched as feed for farmed prawns. Shrimp-cyst sales fetch $150 million in a good year. Altered salinities and low water that would result from GSLM’s expansion threaten this industry, but you don’t hear much from the shrimpers—possibly because they depend on the company for access to the lake.
Hyams has it right that there are few birds in Gunnison Bay. That’s because it’s currently too salty for brine flies and shrimp. But when the lake is in flood stage, as it was during the last half of the 1980s, the main part becomes too fresh for flies and shrimp; and Gunnison Bay becomes just right, providing birds with emergency rations.
Shrimp-egg collectors and duck hunters are about the only people on the lake who run motorboats. That’s because the two main uses of motorboats—fishing and waterskiing—are impractical. Most of the lake is fishless, and the water is so hard a high-speed fall could break bones. So the Great Salt Lake Marina is basically a sailboat operation. As a state employee, harbormaster Dave Shearer can’t comment directly on the expansion. But he explained that low water has already created enormous problems and that those problems could get much worse. “We’re the deepest-draft marina, and we’ve lost 44 slips because the keels hit the mud,” he said. “The other public marina, on Antelope Island, can only accommodate shallow-draft sailboats. Some of the private marinas are high and dry. If the lake gets down to 4,193 [feet above sea level], more than half our keels will be in mud. Today we’re at 4,195.4.”
Jerry Harwood, commodore of the 133-year-old Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, could speak more freely. “This lake is a unique feature of the West,” he remarked. “Every day busloads of tourists show up here; they go out on the lookout and admire the lake. This is a beautiful area, best sunsets you’ll ever see. The mineral content makes colors that are awesome. Take this lake down another three or four feet, and they’re going to be looking at a dust bowl. The state has to consider other values than mining minerals. This expansion is just tragic, unconscionable.”
I got a better appreciation for what Harwood was talking about when Larry Swanson of LightHawk—a volunteer outfit that provides reporters and decision makers with views of natural settings before and after desecration—flew me over the lake in his Cessna 182. In the back seat and pointing out features were Wayne Martinson—Audubon’s Utah IBA coordinator—and attorney Rob Dubuc of Western Resource Advocates, the law firm representing bird advocates fighting expansion. As we passed over the railroad causeway west of Promontory Point, the water turned from foam-streaked pea-soup green to dull red because of the red algae that thrives in higher salinities. The trench sending concentrated brine from GSLM’s western evaporation ponds to its eastern ones showed a brighter red. To our southeast, across 40 miles of green and blue water dappled by cloud shadows, the Wasatch Front seemed as close as it had from the marina. A flock of about 20 white pelicans beat their way against a stiff headwind toward their Bear River Bay smorgasbord.
Cruising over the southwest shore at 145 mph, it took us 15 minutes to traverse the evaporation ponds leased by Morton Salt, U.S. Magnesium, and other companies. All this was once productive bird habitat, too. Hyams had told me that GSLM knows it’s “not going to get all we’re asking for,” that his client hopes it can reach some kind of a “reasonable compromise” with the environmental community. But after flying over all the lake’s evaporation ponds, I was reminded that industry’s definition of “compromise” is always part of what’s left after previous compromises. The process goes on forever. I tried to imagine the scene greeting John Frémont when he explored the lake for the U.S. government in 1843. “The whole morass,” he wrote, “was animated with multitudes of waterfowl, which appeared to be very wild—rising for the space of a mile round about at the sound of a gun, with noise like distant thunder.”
Back on the ground I was given a glimpse of what Frémont had witnessed. Audubon’s Ella Sorensen and Martinson guided me through the society’s Gillmor Sanctuary, on the southeastern shore. Martinson drove, while Sorensen, the sanctuary’s manager, pointed out her water projects and the birds they accommodated. Four pronghorns that had crossed from Antelope Island dashed ahead of us, stopping, starting whenever we caught up, and at length veering off into the tangled vegetation. We dismounted to glass shovelers, mallards, pintails, gadwalls, green-winged and cinnamon teal, coots, American avocets, long-billed curlews, long-billed dowitchers, and willets. Yellow-headed blackbirds rode bobbing cattails.
Sorensen provided the following example of the gross lack of public understanding and appreciation of the lake. A recurring proposal, harder to kill than a vampire, calls for damming the causeway connecting Antelope Island to the mainland, thereby converting the Farmington Bay global IBA to a freshwater impoundment for “public recreation.” At one meeting Sorensen confronted the speaker-promoter with: “Sir, may we please have your thoughts on what your plan will do to Wilson’s phalaropes and eared grebes.” She might as well have been speaking Chinese. He turned red, and she kept at him until he started spluttering and stuttering. In autumn the lake’s brine shrimp, which can’t live in freshwater, sustain about 1.5 million eared grebes. And about a million Wilson’s phalaropes depend on the lake’s brine flies, which also can’t live in freshwater.
Sorensen was one of at least half a dozen contacts who referred me to Don Paul, former Great Basin coordinator for the Intermountain West Joint Venture, a bird conservation partnership of 18 federal, state, and private entities. He joined Martinson, Dubuc, and me for a lake tour hosted by the Utah Airboat Association. As we climbed aboard two airboats provided by association members Dan DeJong and Kerry McCloud, the group’s president, Jefre Hicks, said this: “We’re deeply concerned about expansion. Our main activity is duck hunting, and I don’t think there is a user group more affected than we are.”
In the window between two violent thunderstorms we slid and sashayed over wet mud, through and around bulrushes, cattails, phragmites, widgeon grass, and sago pondweed, down the length of Willard Spur, past the state’s Harold Crane Waterfowl Management Area, and out into Bear River Bay. All this water is fresh enough to support waterfowl staples, a superabundance of invertebrates for shorebirds, and even fish for bald eagles, pelicans, gulls, terns, herons, egrets, western grebes, and other piscivores.
When I commented on the amazing amount of birdlife, Don Paul informed me we were seeing only the thin vanguard, that the main flights were weeks away. Still, black-crowned night herons, great blues, and snowy egrets billowed up around us. Rafts and flights of coots, puddle ducks, and divers showed on all compass points. American avocets, black-necked stilts, and white-faced ibises stalked the mudflats. Paul nudged me, pointing out two of the season’s first marbled godwits.
As we approached GSLM’s eastern evaporation ponds, DeJong and McCloud switched off their engines, and we drifted next to the dikes. Eared grebes ducked and popped. High overhead a Caspian tern sculled toward Willard Bay. The dikes leak. And to get rid of the mineral buildup at the bottom of its ponds GSLM has annually flushed them with 49,000 acre-feet of Bear River Bay water. So the water here is unnaturally salty. That makes for great late-season duck hunting because this part of the bay doesn’t freeze. But it also raises major concerns.
Dubuc and Paul explained: The lake has some of the highest levels of mercury recorded anywhere, and Gunnison Bay has significantly more than the main body. Most Gunnison Bay mercury entering Bear River Bay would be elemental mercury, which wouldn’t be much of a problem without the saltwater wedge that GSLM also sends into the bay. That hugs the bottom, potentially creating the anaerobic condition that converts elemental mercury to methyl mercury, a deadly poison that bioaccumulates in fish, birds, mammals, and people. Already there are health advisories out to duck hunters about eating shovelers, cinnamon teal, and goldeneyes.
GSLM had been flushing its ponds since 1997 without a permit, so last November Dubuc served it with a 60-day notice that his clients—Friends of Great Salt Lake, the Utah Airboat Association, the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake, and the League of Women Voters of Utah
—would sue if it didn’t obtain a permit. Accordingly, the company entered into a consent decree with the state Department of Water Quality, pledging not to flush until it gets a permit. But at this writing a lawsuit seems likely. The department won’t hold GSLM responsible for past damage. And while the final permit has yet to be hatched, the draft pretty much allows business as usual with no monitoring required.
On my last day in Utah, biologists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 80,000-acre Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge showed me their ponds, a stunning contrast to the ones GSLM had shown me on my first day. Northern harriers wobbled over the marshes. Waterfowl, shorebirds, herons, California gulls, and pheasants flushed ahead of us as we drove along the vegetated dikes that separate 26 water-management units. Everything here depends on freshwater, most taken from the Bear River. But in summer the river gets dewatered by farmers, and refuge wetlands start to starve. This requires painful decisions by staff as to what birds get the last trickles of life support. “We want to keep our wetlands brackish,” said refuge manager Bob Barrett. “Too fresh or too salty, and we lose important food plants like sago pondweed and alkali bulrush.” Like state employees, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel aren’t allowed to comment on the expansion. But one high-ranking refuge official informed me that a falling lake level threatens the refuge because water drains off the management units much faster and keeping it brackish gets harder.
By order of the Utah legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court, the Great Salt Lake and its dependent wetlands are subject to the U.S. Public Trust Doctrine, which protects “navigation, fish and wildlife habitat, aquatic beauty, public recreation, and water quality” for the benefit of “the public at large,” not the financial gain of private industry. So if the state succeeds in its all-out push for expansion, it will render itself vulnerable to prosecution for flouting state and federal law.
The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, the Harold Crane Waterfowl Management Area, and Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary—all the intensively managed wetlands around the lake I visited or flew over—exist to compensate for habitat destruction in Utah and elsewhere. But what and who will compensate for 91,000 acres of additional lake loss?
When Ella Sorensen was showing me around the Gillmor Sanctuary, she made a comment that encapsulated the threat of GSLM’s proposed expansion better than anything I had read or heard. In 1998, when she’d been participating in an airborne bird survey with Don Paul, they’d been unable to find Wilson’s phalaropes in any of the usual places, and they were getting concerned. “We went up to the northern tip of the lake and down the west side to Gilbert Bay, where there usually aren’t many birds. Finally Don said, ‘Wow.’ There they were—maybe 300,000. How incredible to see the majority of the planet’s Wilson’s phalaropes in a single flock—and how scary. What happens if we mess up the lake?”
What happens is a sharp acceleration of a process that started shortly after Frémont visited the lake in 1843—beauty fading, delicate ecosystems unraveling, diversity decaying to sameness, healthy species becoming imperiled, imperiled species becoming endangered, our planet getting poorer and sadder.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
A new coalition provides information on GSLM’s proposed expansion. To learn when and how you can comment on the upcoming draft environmental impact statement and for information on Great Salt Lake birds and how to help save them, click here.
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