Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration

Save the Salt is a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the vast salt flats that are also home to one of motorsports most hallowed venues: the Bonneville International Speedway.

The Save the Salt Coalition launched in 2011 to unify efforts and push for more research, monitoring, restoration and protection for the ancient salt flats just outside Wendover, Utah.

Warning signs of salt surface depletion by commercial mining operations for salt, potash and other minerals available in the salt surface have been showing up for several decades. Both the salt flat surface area and thickness have steadily declined.

Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration Grid Lineup
Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration: Being able to continue events like this depends on saving the salt.
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According to data on the Save the Salt website, the earliest mining operations began on the flats in 1907. In the decades since the scope and scale of mineral extraction has vastly increased. In fact, as early as 1915, the Salt Lake City Tribune was sounding the alarm about the wholesale destruction of the salt surface. By 1917, mineral extraction operations expanded to include potash, also taken by removing the salt surface.

Additional damage was being done to the salt surface by ditching operations and the resulting mud tailing piles along the salt surface. Wind and water erosion caused the mud and silt to leach out onto the salt surface.

Land speed racing had its earliest record attempt in 1914 with an unofficial world speed record set by Teddy Tetzlaff in the Blitzen Benz at 141.73 mph, though the American Automobile Association, the keeper of official speed records at the time did not recognize the record.

In 1920, through private purchase and land concessions given by Congress, 49 square miles (57,500 acres) of the salt flats went into private ownership for exploitation.

Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration
Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration: Removal of salt and potash is blamed for loss of salt surface area and thickness. Surface water on top adds to the dissolution of the surface.

It wasn’t until 1935 that the Bonneville Salt Flats had its first internationally recognized land speed record set. Sir Malcolm Campbell became the first man to go over 300 mph with the huge Blue Bird streamliner, when he reached 301.130 mph. However, in the years prior to that, many endurance records had been set, including those by Ab Jenkins and John Cobb. Cobb ran an incredible machine, the Napier-Railton, which had a 23-liter W12 Napier Lion engine.

In 1946, the salt flats came under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management in the U.S. Department of Interior. The first assessment of the thickness of the salt crust was done in 1960 by the Utah Department of Transportation. Using 108 bore holes spread across lines perpendicular to the international race course, with the lines space a mile apart, the UDOT study provided the earliest baseline data on depth and overall area of the crust. The UDOT repeated its study in 1974, using the same sampling pattern and measurement methods.

When compared to the 1960 data, the 1974 data indicated a 9 percent decrease in salt crust area and 15 percent reduction in salt crust volume.

When the Bureau of Land Management replicated the earlier studies in 1988, using the UDOT methods and 118 bore holes, it found that salt crust area had diminished by 21 percent and salt crust volume had decreased by 31 percent both compared to the 1960 data. Based on the aggregate data over time, salt crust depletion was then estimated to be occurring at an annual rate of 1.1 percent.

Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration Save the Salt
Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration: The vast salt surface at its best—but there is less of it now than in years past.

In 1995, the first pilot project between Reilly Industries and the Bureau of Land Management began to assess the effectiveness of brine pumping onto the salt flats during the winter months as a way to begin restoring the surface. By May 2002, 6.2 million tons of salt had been re-deposited to the salt flats north of Interstate highway 80 in the area of the Speedway. Between 2002 and 2005, Reilly’s successor, Intrepid Potash-Wendover, LLC had placed an additional 800,000 tons of salt to the surface.

More recent data developed in 2003 indicates that either the salt surface and volume data constructed earlier was less accurate than that using different sampling methods in the 2003 study or that the salt deposition project did make a small positive difference. The fact of the matter is probably somewhere in between.

For example, while the tonnage of salt deposited during the laydown project through 2002 totaled 6.2 million tons, mining and depletion also continued, with a known total of 4.2 million tons extracted. Thus, the actual net gain in the period was only 2 million tons.

Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration damage map
Bonneville Salt Flats Restoration: This map indicates the number and location of bore holes used to assess the salt flats in 2003.

That would suggest gains from the salt restoration effort might be smaller than projected based on total tonnage deposited. In addition, some of the researchers indicate that much of the brine being pumped may be deposited to the shallow-brine aquifer below the salt, rather than as salt deposition on the surface after evaporation; that out of the total 6.2 million tons, only about 0.6 million tons was accounted for in new surface salt crust deposition in a five square mile area. If true, it means that if current depletion rates continue from commercial activities, brine pumping must not only continue, but must increase substantially to break even.

Work on the salt restoration has continued, with the tonnage deposition in 2016 (497,000 tons) exceeding annual average tonnage achieved for the past ten years. That is good news to be sure, but the Save the Salt effort needs on-going support to push for more tonnage, monitoring and research into alternatives to save the salt.

For more information and to support the Save the Salt effort, go to: Save the Salt.

Another great way to support the efforts to restore and preserve the Bonneville Salt Flats and get a piece of history for yourself is to get a copy of the book, Bonneville A Century of Speed (we reviewed it and two companion books here)