It’s Time to Restore the Bonneville Salt Flats

SEMA News—August 2016


By Stuart Gosswein

It’s Time to Restore the Bonneville Salt Flats

  Bonneville Salt Flats
Getting ready to race at Speed Week.

Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats are a unique land formation that beckon visitors from around the world. For racers, the surface is unequaled. The hard salt crust is perfect for both speed and safety. For SEMA members, it is our heritage. Member products and sponsored race teams have helped set scores of world records.

For more than 50 years, the land speed racing community has sounded the alarm that the Bonneville Salt Flats were being destroyed by U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mismanagement. The BLM’s traditional response has been to call for studies. There have been six to date. When the racing community proposed a comprehensive restoration plan this past May, the BLM said no action should be undertaken pending the results of yet another study. Frankly, Bonneville has been studied to death.

The Bonneville Salt Flats are more than 60 miles long and divided in half by railroad tracks and highways. Land speed racing began in 1914, and the racetracks have been located on the north side since the ’30s, with potash mining mostly to the south. The two activities lived in harmony until the ’60s, when the BLM began issuing leases allowing salt to be transferred south through miles of ditches without scientific proof that there would be no damage to Bonneville. Potash is extracted from the salt through solar evaporation, and the purified salt is a waste product of the process.

Bonneville Salt Flats
The Bonneville Salt Flats are more than 60 miles long and divided in half by Interstate 80, with racing to the north and potash mining to the south.

Until 1997, the salt transfer was a one-way street. The BLM allowed an estimated 50 to 75 million tons of salt to be removed from Bonneville and not returned. In fact, much of the salt is currently located in a mine evaporative processing pond that sits on BLM land.

The racing community and the mine owner created a salt brine return program in the ’90s, which was then implemented with BLM approval. When pumped at average levels of 1.2 million tons per year, the program stabilized Bonneville’s crust and demonstrated small increases. However, the pumping has ranged from 0 to 600,000 tons in recent years.

The racing community represented by the Save the Salt Coalition/Utah Alliance, of which SEMA is a partner, has issued a comprehensive plan for restoring Bonneville, which includes increased pumping. Water to create the brine solution is available through existing wells and other sources. Meantime, the BLM has only called for yet another study, while ignoring those it has already conducted. One such study noted, “Weather cycles may partly explain changes on the Bonneville salt crust. But the activities of man, such as withdrawing brine and constructing surface-drainage barriers, have altered the hydrologic environment and have had a profound effect on the salt crust.”

Bonneville is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is deemed an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Yet the BLM has allowed its health to reach critical condition despite designations that are tied to the racing venue and should trigger protective actions.

  Bonneville Salt Flats
The conditions of Bonneville have deteriorated significantly between 1966 and 2015.

The racing community is not the only voice calling for protection. Last October, Utah Governor Gary Herbert sent a letter urging the BLM to engage in an effort to start an immediate Bonneville restoration program. Similar letters were sent by Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Senator Harry Reid, Senator Dean Heller, Senator Mike Lee and Representative Rob Bishop.

In March, Governor Herbert signed a resolution sponsored by State Representative Stephen Handy and State Senator Peter Knudson urging the BLM to formulate a plan to restore the BSF International Speedway to safe land speed racing conditions. Since the BLM is a federal agency, the racing community is now calling on the U.S. Congress to provide direction through legislation.

Recommendations for Saving Bonneville

A comprehensive Bonneville Salt Flats restoration plan has been commissioned by the Save the Salt Coalition/Utah Alliance and presented to the BLM. The coalition is an international group of businesses and organizations, including SEMA, with a vested interest in Bonneville. The Utah Alliance has partnered with the coalition to provide expertise and connections at the state and local levels.

The goal of the restoration efforts is to return the Bonneville Salt Flats to conditions whereby it once again has a 13-mile-long track. The following are key recommendations for restoring Bonneville:

  • Increased Salt Brine Pumping: Dramatically increase the level of brine being pumped onto Bonneville. An immediate goal would be to pump at least one million tons per year, as occurred in the five-year experimental program.
  • Reconfigure Salt Laydown: Pump brine into the unused Salduro Loop, a large salt area adjacent to Bonneville that has not been mined for decades. The brine will become fully saturated as it is then pumped onto Bonneville.
  • Salt/Water Sources: An evaporative processing pond on BLM land contains at least 100 million tons of salt that could be a source for salt brine. Water to create and move the brine to the salt flats is likely available through new wells adjacent to existing wells or other accessible areas.
  • Lease Withdrawals: The federal leases that allowed salt brine to flow through ditches to the potash mining area south of Bonneville should be withdrawn.
  • Removal of the Salduro Loop Clay Berms: Remove dikes and berms that have eroded over decades and caused significant salt crust contamination. Removal of these dikes must be done in a way that does not further contaminate the Bonneville Salt Flats.
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