WENDOVER, Utah (AP) — In the Utah desert, a treeless expanse of pristine white salt crystals has long lured daredevil speed racers, filmmakers and social media-obsessed tourists. It’s so flat that on certain days, visitors swear they can see the curvature of the earth.
The glistening white terrain of the Bonneville Salt Flats, a remnant of a prehistoric lakebed that is one of the American West’s many other-worldly landscapes, serves as a racetrack for land speed world records and backdrop for movies like “Independence Day” and “The World’s Fastest Indian.”
But it’s growing thinner and thinner as those who cherish it clamor for changes to save it.
Research has time and again shown that the briny water in the aquifer below the flats is depleting faster than nature can replenish it. As nearby groundwater replaces the mineral-rich brine, evaporation yields less salt than historic cycles of flooding and evaporation left on the landscape.
It’s thinned by roughly one-third in the last 60 years. The overall footprint has shrunk to about half of its peak size in 1994. The crust keeps tires cool at high speeds and provides an ideal surface for racing — unless seasonal flooding fails to recede or leaves behind an unstable layer of salt. Racers struggle to find a track long enough to reach record speeds with only 8 miles of track compared 13 miles (20 kilometers) several decades ago.
Scientists largely agree that years of aquifer overdraws by nearby potash mining have driven the problem, yet insist that there’s no hard evidence that simply paying the mining company to return water to the area will solve it amid detrimental human activity like extracting minerals or driving racecars.
Potash is potassium-based salt primarily used throughout the world as a fertilizer for crops such as corn, soy, rice and wheat. It’s extracted in more than a dozen countries throughout the world, mainly from prehistoric lakebeds like Bonneville's.
It's mined from other iconic salt flats, including in Chile, where the thickness is not shrinking in a similar manner.
In Utah, after three decades of studies examining the salt flats, nothing has slowed the deterioration. But officials are funding a new study as they try to find a solution. Researchers are seeking to pinpoint why the salt is fading and what can be done to stop it. Under a $1 million research project spearheaded by the Utah Geological Survey, scientists are gathering data to understand the effects climate change, racing, repaving the salt and operating the mine on leased federal land have on preserving the Salt Flats.
The salt is thinning as climate change drags the West into its third decade of drought, yet it's unclear how that affects the seasonal flood patterns the landscape relies on to maintain its size and footprint.
Frustration is boiling over for Dennis Sullivan, a car-builder and racer who set a land speed record in his 1927 Model T street roadster. His organization, the Salt Flats Racing Association, is convinced the potash mining company that extracts minerals from the flats is the primary reason that the aquifer is being depleted. But rather than point fingers that direction, he and other racers blame the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area and is required by federal law to balance multiple uses and preserve it now and into the future.
To save the landscape, Sullivan says, the U.S. government needs to find $50 million over 10 years to pay Intrepid Potash, the mining company, to pour briny water it’s drawn from the land back on to the flats. He bristles at seeing more time and money spent on research when to him the solution is clear.