For years, there has been concern over the salt on Bonneville Salt Flats. It's disappearing.
Which means little to most people. To most people, the flats are simply a passing attraction to and from Nevada. But, in the world of fast cars and world speed records, Bonneville is a part of life. And, if Bonneville loses its salt, then Utah will certainly lose Bonneville - and the fastest plot of land on earth.At blame is the surface mining of the salt flats for minerals. A series of large canals draw surface water and all the minerals, including salt, away from flats and to a refinery in the winter and spring.
In 1988, a plan was adopted to put the salt back. It was to be mixed with water and then pumped back on the flats. The process was to have begun last year, but didn't because of funding problems.
The Bureau of Land Management, overseers of the land, couldn't get funding. The State of Utah wouldn't and the racers, in desperation, tried but didn't.
The latest move is an attempt to void the lease issued in 1983 to the mining operation, Kaiser Industries, which is now Reilly Industries.
According to Ray Brock, a publishing consultant and head of a coalition to save the salt, a review of the lease shows it was renewed illegally, "and we're asking that it be revoked.
"We've found that there was no Environmental Impact Study, which is called for under BLM guidelines. The BLM requires it for all such leases and in this case it was not done."
He added that the plan to pump saltwater back onto the flats is flawed.
"You pump the water onto the salt flats, but then Reilly pulls it right back. There's nothing to be gained. The only way to save the salt flats is to stop mining and close the canals," he said.
In June, a letter was sent to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, informing him of the problem. He responded, saying "he would look into" the matter.
Meanwhile, racers are moving forward and hoping that the race canceled last month isn't a sign that the track is terminally ill.
Halfway through a three-day meet, the race was stopped because of poor track conditions. Instead of the salt bonding to make a hard running surface, the salt crystals broke apart and turned to "sugar." One driver said it was like driving through mush.
On Aug. 20, about 400 cars with drivers and crews are scheduled to hit Bonneville for the annual "Speed Week." Race officials report that the race is on and that whatever needs to be done will be done in order to race.
Dean Zeller, district manager for the BLM, says there has been talk of doing everything from simply putting down a new track, to building five short tracks side-by-side "and running on one until it goes, then moving to the next one."
Rick Vesco, an official of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, said the salt's surface this year is white, flat and smooth, "but won't support the weight of a vehicle. You couldn't get any traction."
He said the salt was contaminated by magnesium brought to the flats in the mud washed from the chemical company and pushed onto the salt flats. This contamination stops the sodium nitrate crystals from bonding to make a hard running surface.
Zeller said it's possible, too, that water on the flats evaporated too quickly this summer.
"No one has a good grasp on what's happening. We don't know if the higher magnesium level caused the problem. This was an unusual year. We had a lot of water and it evaporated quickly. Maybe that rate of evaporation changed the salt crystals. Maybe it's a natural thing," he added.
So far the BLM's requests for funds to restore the salt flats have been rejected back in Washington D.C. Zeller said his office is now looking into "alternative" ways of raising funds. One way would be to increase the filming fees to private groups that use the salt flats. There's also talk of raising money through visitor fees, or interpretive programs.
"Right now we're brainstroming," he said.
The lose the Salt Flats would be a tremendous loss to Utah, both economically and recreationally, Vesco conceded.
It is, indeed, a national treasure. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.