OGDEN — The railroad causeway running through the Great Salt Lake created divided waters in Utah long ago. This fall, however, that rift deepened.
The water to the north of the causeway sits about three feet lower than the water to the south. That north part of the lake was essentially sealed off from waters to the south in 2013, when Union Pacific took emergency measures to close two unstable culverts. As the lake has receded in recent years, sealing off the causeway has both isolated the lake’s north arm from water inflows and insulated the south arm from the consequences of a lake in decline.
It’s keeping some of the lake industries barely afloat while leaving others with a sinking feeling.
“The south arm is artificially high and the north arm is artificially low,” said Joe Havasi, director of natural resources for Compass Minerals, which extracts minerals from north arm waters. “We’ve expended lots of resources and capital to extend our intake canals in response to this condition.”
Compass Minerals, which produces minerals for fertilizer and road salts, already extended its intake canal over six miles to follow the receding shoreline to keep brine flowing to its west evaporation ponds. To date, they’ve spent $10 million on the west pond project and canal extensions. The company provides 375 full-time jobs at its Ogden plant and is one of the largest contributors to the billion-dollar minerals extraction industry on the Great Salt Lake.
The causeway extends 20 miles across the lake from Promontory Point to the lake’s western shore. Since 1959, the causeway — composed of a rock-filled berm — has essentially created two lakes: the saltier, purple-hued north arm and the green-blue south arm which receives nearly all of the lake’s freshwater flows from the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers
Today, all that stands in the way of returning flows between the two saline arms is a pile of rock and soil slightly wider than a truck.
Union Pacific already finished constructing a new causeway breach in September and planned to open it this month. But as the lake teeters on the brink of unprecedented lows, state agencies negotiated a hold on the breach until Dec. 1.
“We don’t want to damage any of the economies that depend on the lake, but we don’t want to damage the ecosystem, either,” said Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “It’s something everyone is pretty nervous about.”
Completing the breach in October could upset an already-delicate brine shrimp ecosystem, according to John Luft, the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program manager with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
And it’s not just birds that depend on the brine shrimp — in addition to the mineral extraction industries, there’s also a multi-million dollar aquaculture industry on the lake. Brine shrimp eggs are harvested and shipped around the world to feed the seafood people eat.
Breaching the causeway would cause a water and salinity exchange, making the south arm lower and saltier. Brine shrimp are most productive at 12 to 17 percent salinity, and the south arm’s salt level is currently at 16 percent.
“So we’re already getting at a point where it might start stunting growth and production,” Luft said.
READ MORE: LOSING THE GREAT SALT LAKE
The Standard-Examiner’s yearlong project about the environmental and economic consequences of a receding Great Salt Lake.
By December, brine shrimp typically die off, eared grebes return to the skies and the commercial harvest wraps up.
Compass Minerals was operating under the expectation that the Union Pacific breach would open this fall, Havasi said, but the state postponed those plans without consulting major stakeholders like Compass Minerals, he said. They worry the state could push the delay even further.
“To have something last minute come up that hasn’t been vetted in the public arena, that hasn’t been circulated among they key stakeholders, would be concerning,” he said.
Curry said state agencies are cautiously considering how to proceed.
“You could say it’s ‘limbo’ … we’re awaiting some science to determine really, based on ecological modeling and hydrological modeling, what … will happen when the breach is opened up,” he said. “It’s a complex analysis. It’s not perfect, but it’s high-tech.”
So far, the plan remains to breach the causeway Dec. 1, Curry said, but that doesn’t mean that plan won’t change as analysis continues.
The uncertainty is what concerns managers at Compass Minerals the most. They agreed with extending the breach deadline to December to keep the lake’s shrimp and other industries viable, Havasi said, but the company needs to consider its own future, too.
They could even push Union Pacific’s breach plans into 2017 or beyond — a violation of federal requirements tied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit.
“That level of predictability is critical to Compass and other industries on the lake — that what everyone expects is going to happen actually happens,” he said. “Which is why we’re concerned about a potentially longer-term, indefinite delay.”
It will take around three or four months for the lake to stabilize once it’s breached, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. Around one to one and a half feet are expected to leave the south arm and flow to the north arm, according to calculations from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Utah Department of Natural Resources, although pulling exact figures from the notoriously unpredictable lake is tough.
The breach could take the entire lake to a historic low, beating the past record elevation of 4,191.35 feet set in 1963.
“I think over the past decade, nobody had heeded the warnings that we’re using too much water and not letting enough reach the lake,” Luft said. “Now we’re going to start suffering the consequences.”
The receding Great Salt Lake, according to studies, is caused by a combination of drought conditions and water diversions. Craig Miller, senior engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resources, collaborated on a white paper this winter showing the lake would be 11 feet higher if not for human water consumption.
“We’ve become very efficient in using the lake’s water before it reaches the lake,” Miller said. “There’s increased use from agriculture and municipal demands. Then around the lake, they have the artificial bird ponds and mineral industries are now taking more water out of the lake than they used to.”
The north arm — where Compass Minerals is based — is currently bearing an unbalanced brunt of the lake’s overall water loss. Since 2013, it has lost around two feet each year — two feet that theoretically would have been replenished with inflows from the causeway’s culverts.
“So if the closure continues into 2017, you can almost predict another 2 feet of loss,” Havasi of Compass Minerals said. “And we’re already in unprecedented waters right now.”
But boosting the north arm by dropping the south arm means rescue boats won’t be able to launch at marinas. It means more lakebed dust and air quality issues near population centers in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties. Scientists believe more exposed lakebed will mean more dust and air quality problems. It also means an uncertain future for the lake’s wildlife, now entirely dependent on the wetlands and waters south of the causeway, said both Curry and Luft.
“We’ll just have to deal with what comes,” Luft said. “If we have a poor winter, or a series of them, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
Curry said he understands the concerns coming from a variety of stakeholders — minerals industries, brine shrimp harvesters, ecological interests and regulatory agencies. All are navigating uncharted waters, he said.
“To see the lake be this low is a surprise to everyone really,” he said. “Everybody is concerned about it, I think, equally.”