Racers Plan to Look to Congress for Action on Salt Flats

Updated May 27, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Racers who have sounded the alarm that Utah's famous Bonneville Salt Flats are deteriorating now want Congress to step in, arguing that a law is needed because federal land managers aren't doing enough to restore the flats where record-breaking races are held.

Dennis Sullivan, president of the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, said racing enthusiasts urging protection of the flats are drafting a federal law that would call for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to take some kind of action to restore depleted salt within a certain time frame.

Sullivan declined to provide a copy of the draft legislation or offer any specifics about what the proposal would call for, citing ongoing changes to the proposal the group is making. He said it will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Racers have gathered for decades on the gleaming white sheets of salt about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City where cars, motorcycles and anything else with wheels attempt to reach speeds topping 400 mph.

But wet patchy surfaces have caused nine major races to be canceled or cut short in recent years, and the racing community worries that nearby potash mining is draining an aquifer that helps replenish the flats.

They argue that's left shrunken flats with rougher, thinner crust instead of the hard, flat surface needed for racing.

U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, whose district includes the Bonneville Salt Flats, said in a statement that he's concerned about the flats, but according to his spokeswoman Allison Leavitt, he is not working on legislation right now.

"My office has been in touch with key stakeholders in Washington, D.C. and Utah, and I'm working to find a solution that will preserve this national jewel," Stewart said in a statement.

The BLM has pointed out that heavy rains have left standing water on the flats in past years, leading to cancelations, and that the agency requires the mining company to pump brine back onto the flats every winter with the goal of thickening the salt crust.

But racers say that's not enough to keep up with decades of mining. They've put together a 90-page document outlining steps the BLM could take, including a suggestion that more than 1 million tons of brine be pumped back each year, up from about 400,000 tons.

BLM spokeswoman Lisa Reid said the agency is reviewing the racers' proposal and whether they can take any of the steps outlined.

She said the agency is also waiting for a 2018 study by a University of Utah professor examining the salt crust and the effects of human activity, weather and other factors.

Dr. Brenda Bowen, the researcher, said preliminary findings based on satellite images show the surface area of the flats has shrunk over 30 years, measuring about 27 square miles down from about 54 square miles. Bowen said it's too early in the research to know what's caused that, and it's unclear whether the crust itself is thinner.

Sullivan, with the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, said racers don't yet know if the flats will be in any condition to host major races later this summer because the surface is covered in water from recent rains.

He said he's interested to see the results of the 2018 study but significant steps need to be taken before then.

"If we keep going the way we're going, there will not be anything to study," Sullivan said. "We can't wait that long. The salt flats can't wait that long."

Share this article