Is It Too Late to Save the Bonneville Salt Flats?

·6 min read
Photo credit: Ryan McVay - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ryan McVay - Getty Images
  • Thousands of years ago, a giant body of salty water called Lake Bonneville covered much of the state of Utah, the remnants of which make up the Great Salt Lake as well as the Bonneville Salt Flats.

  • For close to a hundred years, racers have used the concrete-hard flats for land speed record runs, its miles and miles of expanse allowing for vehicles to reach upwards of 600 mph.

  • Today, however, the salt on the flats is a fraction of the thickness it was at its peak, as factors including nearby potash mining have threatened its viability.

You can’t blame everything on potash mining.

In pre-historic, pre-human, and pre-Bonneville Speed Week times, there was a body of water in western Utah known as Lake Bonneville. It was huge. If you look up at the mountains surrounding what are now the Bonneville Salt Flats, home of the greatest land speed racing the world has ever known, you can still see ancient shorelines hundreds of feet above the burning white flatness. Then, 16,800 years ago—geologists are very precise on this—something let loose and almost all of Lake Bonneville drained out into what is now southern Idaho.

This was both good and bad. Bad if you were an ancient dino-shark eating as many fish as you felt like eating all day long only to find yourself in what would become an Idaho potato field (oh, how the mighty always fall!), but good if you were a land speed racer.

Since the great draining of Lake Bonneville those tens of thousands of years ago, the remnants of the once-great lake literally ebbed and flowed. But in “modern times,” the lake remnants became what is now known as Great Salt Lake, the one by Salt Lake City, and the Bonneville Salt Flats a hundred miles west of that. Over the last hundred years or so the Bonneville Salt Flats have mostly dried up and left a hard surface miles and miles long that is just perfect for flooring the throttle and seeing what your race car can really do.

Photo credit: George D. Lepp - Getty Images
Photo credit: George D. Lepp - Getty Images

The first racing may have taken place as early as 1914. Ab Jenkins set records on the flats in the 1930s in a car called The Mormon Meteor. Successive racers came over the decades and set their own records, perhaps the greatest being the competing duo of Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove in the early ‘60s, who moved the record over 500 and 600 mph. In between those great high-water marks were hundreds of home-grown racers driving self-engineered craft of all manner to land speed records.

When racing first started at Bonneville the salt was as much as six feet thick and seemed like it would never go away. Winter rains would flow onto the salt, bringing replenishing minerals from the hills, and the salt got thicker. In the summer the rainwater would dry up, the surface of the salt would get hard as concrete, and the racers would come and race.

The mining started in 1917 during WWI, when the country’s previous supply of potash, from Germany, dried up because of the war. Mineral extraction really got going in 1963, according to local media outlet Deseret News.

“(In) 1963… the Bureau of Land Management leased 25,000 acres to Bonneville Ltd., a private mining company,” Deseret said. “By 1979, the Utah Geological and Mineral Survey’s salt drilling measurements indicated that the flats were shrinking. The salt crust became thin and easy to puncture. In 1960, the salt on the International Speedway was multiple feet deep. In May 2021, it was a quarter of an inch thick.”

Originally covering 96,000 acres when someone first measured it, the Bonneville Salt Flats are now less than 30,000. At least one third of the shrinkage is due to mineral extraction, mostly potash, potassium-rich salts that are used as fertilizer.

“A century ago, there was plenty of thick hard salt as far as the eye could see,” said an organization of racers called “As the years unwound, the damning game of give and take, the salt giving and man taking, knocked the natural balance out of whack, causing the salt surface to not only thin, but the perimeter to slowly shrink... The land speed racing community is now facing a daunting ecological emergency.”

In 1997 a deal was worked out wherein potash miners would replenish the salt flats by pumping salt-heavy brine back onto the flats after extracting potash from it. This seemed to work. For a while. Now, however, it doesn’t rain as much, the extraction goes on, and the salt continues to shrink. So various government agencies have agreed to study the problem.

Photo credit: Alvis Upitis / Design Pics - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alvis Upitis / Design Pics - Getty Images

“The Utah Geological Survey (UGS), in collaboration with the University of Utah, Bureau of Land Management, Intrepid Potash, and the land speed racing community (as represented by the Specialty Equipment Market Association [SEMA]), is working to collect scientific data to understand the effects of climate, racing, salt laydown, and potash mining on the Bonneville Salt Flats salt pan’s growth, salt dissolution and sustainability,” read a statement from the Utah Geological Survey.

The study is funded by $1 million from the state of Utah. The BLM added $125,000. Last fall, UGS installed climate and hydrologic monitoring equipment to collect data focused on the continuing salt laydown process (wherein they pump brine back onto the salt), and its effects on the salt crust and the underlying and adjoining brine aquifer, the Utah Geological Survey said. In the coming months, UGS said, Intrepid Potash will lay down up to half a million ton of salt brine in critical areas of the salt flats. The effects of the laydown will be monitored and analyzed for potential impact on the salt flats.

Will it be too little too late? Is merely studying the problem like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? SEMA, representing the racers, sounded optimistic.

“In working with Intrepid Potash, the volume of salt laid down on Bonneville will be increased by updating and improving the efficiency of the current pumping infrastructure and water conservation efforts, which include rebuilding water wells, covering ditches and installing new pipes and pumps,” SEMA said. “Great efforts to use water more efficiently will help achieve the goal to increase the volume of salt returned to the salt flats. It will likely take several years to upgrade the infrastructure and gradually increase pumping volumes.”

Photo credit: Mark Miller Photos - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mark Miller Photos - Getty Images

SEMA offered specific details on what will happen next.

“The summer 2021 installation of the new water well and equipment to measure water evaporation rates and collect scientific data represented a tangible start to the ambitious restoration effort. The program will seek to identify the best ways to take advantage of the salt laydown and study the effects on the salt crust and underlying brine aquifer. For example, the program will consider ways to contain the salt within the large pumping area. If current research proves beneficial, efforts may be extended into the future upon funding availability. Stakeholders are now identifying projects to be pursued in 2022 and beyond to continue increasing the volume of salt being pumped.”

If you want to help, consider a donation.

“While the bulk of the program funding will come from federal and state appropriations, both industry and the land speed racing community will voluntarily help pay the costs. Financial contributions from the racing community are gratefully accepted at, a 501(c)(3) organization.”

And pray for rain in western Utah.

Photo credit: Mint Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mint Images - Getty Images

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