Saving the Bonneville Salt Flats

SEMA News—February 2017


By Stuart Gosswein

Saving the Bonneville Salt Flats

SEMA Pursues Restoration of Imperiled Racing Venue

  Bonneville Salt Flats
The Bonneville Salt Flats is more than 60 miles long and is divided in half by railroad tracks and highways.

The Bonneville Salt Flats is a unique land formation in northwestern Utah that beckons visitors from around the world. For racers, its surface is unequaled. The hard salt crust is perfect for both speed and safety. But there is a problem. The once 13-mile racetrack is now less than eight miles long due to salt erosion.

For more than 50 years, the land speed racing community has sounded the alarm that Bonneville is being destroyed by government mismanagement and neglect. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been the land’s custodian since 1946, and the agency’s traditional response to the racers’ concerns has been to call for geologic studies. At least six studies have been completed over the decades, and a seventh is underway. Frankly, Bonneville has been studied to death.

The Bonneville Salt Flats is more than 60 miles long and is divided in half by railroad tracks and highways. Land speed racing began in 1914, and the racetracks have been located on the north side and a potash processing plant on the south side since 1932. The two activities existed in harmony until the ’60s, when the BLM began issuing leases allowing salt to be transferred south through miles of ditches north of the highway without scientific proof that there would be no damage to Bonneville. Potash is extracted from the salt through solar evaporation, and the salt is a waste product of the process.

Bonneville Salt Flats
Racers attending the driver’s meeting.

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 huge mine evaporative processing pond that sits on land controlled by the BLM.

The racing community and the mine owner created a salt brine return program in the ’90s that was 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 been severely limited in recent years.

The racing community has issued a comprehensive plan for restoring Bonneville. The community is represented by the Save the Salt Coalition, of which SEMA is a partner, and the Utah Alliance. The Coalition is an international group of businesses and organizations with a vested interest in Bonneville. The Utah Alliance has partnered with the Coalition to provide expertise and governmental connections at the state and local levels.

  Bonneville Salt Flats
Land speed racing began in 1914, and the racetracks have been located on the north side and a potash processing plant on the south side since 1932.

The Coalition/Alliance’s restoration plan, if implemented, will dramatically increase the amount of salt brine being pumped every year and channel it through the Salduro Loop, an unused salt reservoir artificially segregated from the rest of Bonneville, to increase the brine salinity as it is deposited on the salt flats. Additional pumping infrastructure will be needed, but sources of salt and water have already been identified to accomplish the salt replenishment. Since the BLM has not previously pursued a restoration plan, the Coalition/Alliance is turning to lawmakers at both the state and federal levels to support the effort.

To date, the governors of both Utah and Nevada and the Utah State legislature, along with U.S. Senators and Representatives, have called on the BLM to take action. These efforts have included plans that would direct the BLM to restore the international racetrack to its original 13 miles within 10 years.

Bonneville is listed on the national Register of Historic places and deemed an area of Critical Environmental Concern, yet the BLM has allowed its health to reach critical condition despite these designations.

SEMA’s Heritage

Bonneville Salt Flats
Salt depletion as of August 2015.

SEMA’s roots are firmly planted at Bonneville. Member products and sponsored race teams have helped set scores of world records on the racetrack that nature created. When it was formed in 1963, the Speed Equipment Manufacturers Association represented companies producing performance equipment for many land speed trailblazers. In subsequent years, the industry and the trade association blossomed. It was renamed the Specialty Equipment Market Association and now embraces the entire distribution chain, including manufacturers, distributors, retailers and marketers.

Speed equipment will always represent the heritage of SEMA. In fact, Bonneville played a crucial role in SEMA’s formation. Bonneville, El Mirage, Muroc and other Southern California dry lakes were primary venues for industry pioneers to try out new products in the ’30s and ’40s. Those pioneers would adjust their equipment when racing and then go back to the garage to create the next generation of speed equipment. Many of the inventors then started companies and helped create race sanctioning organizations.

Founding SEMA companies such as Ansen, B&M, Crager, Edelbrock, Eelco Manufacturing, Grant Industries, Halibrand, Hedman, Isky Racing Cams, JE Pistons, Milodon, Mooneyes, Schiefer Manufacturing, Trans-Dapt, Weber Speed Equipment and Weiand have been joined by scores of other companies that produce high-performance parts. Whether it is a ’32 hot rod, a ’60s musclecar, a streamliner or anything in between, Bonneville is the proving ground for SEMA-member companies and their customers.

Recommendations for Saving Bonneville

  Bonneville Salt Flats
At the starting line, getting ready to set a land speed record.

The following are key elements of a plan to restore the Bonneville Salt Flats and its 13-mile-long track.

  • Increase Salt Brine Pumping: Dramatically increase the amount of brine being pumped onto Bonneville to at least 1 million tons per year.

  • Reconfigure Salt Laydown: Pump brine through the unused Salduro Loop, a large salt area artificially segregated from Bonneville. The brine would be fully saturated with salt when channeled back onto the salt flats.

  • Sources of Salt/Water: An evaporative processing pond contains at least 100 million tons of salt that could be returned to Bonneville. New water wells could be drilled, if necessary, to dissolve and transport the salt in a brine solution.

  • Remove Salduro Loop Dirt Berms: Carefully remove the dikes that artificially segregate the Salduro Loop from Bonneville. The dikes have eroded over the decades and caused significant salt crust contamination.

Key Moments in Time

1846: Ill-fated Donner-Reed party crosses the Bonneville Salt Flats (BSF) on the way to California.

1907: Western Pacific Railroad completes tracks across BSF, noting numerous construction difficulties due to the salt thickness and hardness. Salt mining begins at BSF but eventually converts to potash production.

1910: Future Salt Lake City Mayor Ab Jenkins becomes first person to ride a motorized vehicle across BSF.

Bonneville Salt Flats
At the starting line, getting ready to set a land speed record.

1914: First unofficial land speed record set by Teddy Tetzlaff, who notes that the salt surface coolness did not overheat tires. Tire companies begin sponsoring events as a way to test tires.

1915: Salt Lake Tribune article observes destructive activities from salt mining: “The world’s greatest natural speedway is being torn up and ground up and dispensed to the public in cartons and packages.”

1917: Potash mining begins.

1917–1918: Brine collection ditch dug at Salduro Loop, with spoils piled up to create a dike. The dike’s mud tailings will infiltrate the adjacent racing area’s salt crust in future years through wind and water erosion.

1919–1925: Victory Highway (Highway 40) constructed across BSF.

1932–1957: Ab Jenkins begins a three-decade career, eventually setting 56 speed and endurance records.

1935: First World Land Speed Record (300 mph) set by Britain’s Sir Malcolm Campbell. New record prompts land speed racing community to move from Daytona Beach, Florida.

1946: U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) becomes BSF custodian.

1947: Britain’s John Cobb runs 400-mph race car on BSF as part of Utah’s Centennial. The official program declares: “The salt is like concrete...It’s extreme hardness gives speeding cars maximum traction….”

1949: First Bonneville National Speed Trials are held (precursor to modern Speed Week).

1956: General Motors names the 1957 Pontiac model “Bonneville” after Ab and Marvin Jenkins set every American record with the new car.

1963: Federal government issues potassium leases covering 24,670 acres adjacent to the race venue. Fourteen miles of collection ditches allow for withdrawal of salt brine.

1965: Mining company requests permission to begin pumping from the collection ditches for potash processing.

1966: Mining company abandons Salduro Loop ditch. The ’60s racers first notice a problem with the salt crust.

Late 1960s–1970s: Studies are undertaken by Utah Geological and Mineralogical Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey to determine extent of salt loss at BSF.

1963–1970: Craig Breedlove (Spirit of America), Art Arfons (Green Monster) and Gary Gabelich (The Blue Flame) focus worldwide attention on jet- and rocket-powered cars. Records increase from 394 mph to 622 mph.

1970: Last World Land Speed Record set at BSF by Gary Gabelich. Salt loss forces international land speed racing community to move record-setting venue to Black Rock Desert, Nevada, and other locations due to reduced length of BSF racetrack.

1972: Interstate 80 constructed across BSF, replacing Hwy 40.

1973: BSF hydrogeology studied by Utah Geological and Mineral Survey.

1974: Utah Geological and Mineral Survey study compares salt crust thickness between 1960 and 1974, concluding that there was a 100% decrease in cubic yards of salt crust over 4-ft. thick during that time period.

1975: Bonneville Salt Flats Race Track added to National Register of Historic Places.

1979: U.S. Geological Survey and BLM study concludes: “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.”

1982: Britain’s Richard Noble sets 633-mph record at Black Rock Desert.

1985: 30,203 acres of BSF are designated as Area of Critical Environmental Concern and identified as the Bonneville Salt Flats Special Recreation Management Area.

1989: Save the Salt Coalition founded by racers, businesses and community members with common goal of saving BSF.

1992: Bonneville Nationals and Speed Week officials forced to change international timing procedures due to reduced speedway length, eliminating the required two-way runs within an hour. Officials focus only on setting national records. Save the Salt Foundation (a nonprofit organization) is established to help raise funds to save BSF.

1995: Save the Salt, BLM, the state of Utah and the mining company negotiate a voluntary agreement for salt brine to be pumped onto BSF for five years during the winter months.

1997: Salt brine pumping begins. U.S. Geological Survey study notes that “maximum salt-crust thickness was 7 ft. in 1960 and 5.5 ft. in 1988” and concludes that “with an estimated net loss of salt from the shallow-brine aquifer, the dissolved-solids concentration must be maintained by dissolution of the salt crust.”

2002: Five-year pumping agreement expires but mining company voluntarily continues pumping operation.

2004: BLM study of the five-year pumping program notes that the 6.2 million tons of salt transferred to BSF did not produce the anticipated 2-in. increase in salt thickness. However, replenishment of the aquifer will eventually add more salt to the existing crust.

2011: Mining company and BLM prepare draft Environmental Assessment (EA) on mining plan. Racing community urges a mandatory salt laydown component.

2012: BLM approves mining plan and final EA that requires mining company to pump at least as much salt as is removed.

2013: Racers observe continued degradation of BSF and worsening conditions. Save the Salt Coalition seeks BLM permission to experiment with a dry salt laydown as a means of extending the racetrack.

2014: BLM denies request for dry salt laydown absent an EA. The Coalition is permitted to deposit 2,000 tons of salt on the mud surface at the end of the access road to BSF racing area.

2015: All 2015 racing events cancelled due to rain and mud contamination from adjoining areas. Save the Salt Coalition/Utah Alliance develop a draft restoration plan. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and other high-ranking Utah/Nevada lawmakers send letters urging BLM to pursue a restoration program.

2016: Coalition/Alliance refine the restoration plan and pursue implementation by BLM. Gov. Herbert signs a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature urging the BLM to restore BSF to safe land speed racing conditions. Save the Salt Coalition pursues federal legislation to give the BLM 10 years to restore BSF racetrack to 13 miles.

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