July 5, 2016

The Great Salt Lake Causeway Bridge: Balancing the Salinity & Saving the Life of America's Dead Sea


I've got a thing for Utah.. it's wild, it's serene, and it's beautiful. Say what you want about Mormons, they run a tight ship and make great neighbors.. it's a pretty good place. While I spend most of my time when I am there exploring the canyon's of it's southern reaches, one of American's world class locations, I've been all over it, and one adventure took me over one of it's rare and actually closed landmarks, in an RV with a crazy homeless dude no less. This is how I came to care about the topic of this blog, the bridge over the causeway that will hopefully contribute to the restoration of saline balance in this great body of water, the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere, and one of the most unique places in America.

People know the Great Salt Lake from the city named after it.. few actually see the lake proper.. you can spot it landing at SLC airport if there isn't a layer of fog or a bad inversion, or see it's edges from I-80 as you head to Nevada, past Bonneville, or maybe from the houses on the hills above the city that shares it's name, but to the majority of the people of Utah, the lake is something you don't think about much, it's useless and somewhat in the way; Thus is the practicality of the Mormon pioneers. While Brigham Young said "this is the place", this place had a big salt lake that wasn't much use for farming or industry until brine shrimp and magnesium harvesting were figured out in this century.. but it was a nice barrier to moving further west, and the rivers that fed it fed their new civilization, which they eked out of Ute land and made into a successful civilization, territory, and then state of the great United States of America.

The lucky and the curious might head out to Antelope Island to take in the view and see the Buffalo, and the truly adventuresome might head out onto it's waters to explore, or work, but I assume it requires frequent new paint jobs and a comfort with a silence hard to explain.
Naivete led me to my greatest Salt Lake adventure. I was returning an RV from an adventure called Burning Man ( I showed up with skepticism but admit I saw something amazing there as well) and spotted a road to what looked like a marina on the west side of the lake on a DeLorme Gazetteere I purchased to widen my understanding of Utah, like I do in a lot of places.. if your map is a highway map, you only see the highways my thinking goes.. Blue Highways are for William Least Heat Moon.. I like dirt roads. I had left Burning Man a bit exhausted, and followed dirt roads east from it that I saw in my companion Nevada DeLorme Gazetteere, and it had been edifying, filling in amazing blank spots on the map north of the Humboldt River valley that most people know, again, the route of I-80-, past mines and abandoned homesteads, relics of the great drive west.  When I returned to the highway with the plan of cutting through the Dugway Proving Ground to said marina, a place called Lakeside, I knew I had a few days left on my RV contract, and needed to clean the thing as well, so I figured my little turtle home, self contained in all aspects, was just right for this exploration. I would sit a few days, relax, ponder the lake and the desert, maybe meet some funky people and clean the dust out of the rig. Also as I returned to the highway, I picked up a rider, what seemed to be an old hippie, and we conversed somewhat easily at first, even though there were some warning signs, a refusal to drink water or eat food, and as time went on it got a bit weird, but I'll get to that..
so I picked this guy up, and he seemed up for anything, told me he had no plan somewhere in north east Nevada,, so I turned north a few hours later, west of the lake, and started heading north through the desert to this alleged Marina.. it was right near what the map said was a railroad causeway, and it was one I had read about before.. the Great Golden Spike on the Transcontinental Railroad was driven in just north of Promontory Point, connecting east and west by railway, some 80 years before we would successfully do it with the Eisenhower interstate system for the automobile. Originally the railroad went around the lake to the north, but engineers and railroad barons like a nice straight line, and they constructed the railway across the lake, well two spans, touching at Promontory Point, called the Lucin Cutoff, and between 1902 and 1904 constructed it across the lake as a trellis. The nice thing about a trellis is that water moves under it no problem. it's just a collection of pilings.. if anything, the strip of railroad cools the lake just a bit with it's shade and stops it from evaporating away too fast, but progress is progress, and in the 50's, our restless and now quite capable nation of eager beavers did what it did so many times, in the Everglades, on the Colorado, all over,  and it built a causeway out of rip rapp and the natural circulation of the lake was halted.. there were a few culverts, but they started to sink under the weight of the train and were closed. The great Salt Lake became two lakes, separated by one great railway, and problems began to occur.

As I arrived at the gate of Dugway, my rootless companion, already coming across as a bit odd, expected from a 60 year old hitchhiker, started to act a little weird.. the only radio station I could get out there was broadcasting Sean Hannity. I am nervous because I know Dugway is a place for Secret Squirrel Stuff, but my map seems to indicate I can drive right through the place to the north end of it where my marina should be. Sure enough, the road goes to the right past the gate and keeps going.. no need to explain myself to the Air Force guys, but my companion gets more ornery. I ponder dropping him off with the air force dudes but feel that would be a betrayal, and raise a bit kerfuffle.. As we drive over these dramatic hills and rock edges, sage and scree, my companion starts to blame Sean Hannity for the flies buzzing around the cab of the RV.. for making the flies attack him...
he says as much to me..I'm realizing that he's not all normal, and I start to worry.. but no fear, at that marina there will be people, life, services.. people to talk about the area with.. he'll blend right in, shaggy and hippie as he is, and get some sleep and calm down..
but my alarm increases, he mumbles more, and when I get to the anticipated marina, or where it should be, it ain't there..there is nothing there.. no buildings, no people, no marina, no salt water toffee, just a gravel parking lot where someone once did something...
I drive in circles for a bit, pondering my situation.. I think about stopping and dropping him off, but realize he would starve to death.. we are what most people call the middle of nowhere. I don't come to a halt because the idea that I am driving feels like protection, I keep moving, thinking he may be nuts, but won't attack me while we are in motion, since by this point I have accepted that he's out of touch with reality, but not suicidal.. I see the causeway, and there is no gate.. I hate backtracking, more than I hate an insane man in my RV, and I put the pedal down and head for the causeway. Soon I am on it, RV and all, and crossing towards promontory point in the distance.
It's beautiful, like driving on the water it's self. there are mirages.. the air is fresh, well, fresh by desert in late summer standards.. you can smell the salt, feel humidity, and after a few miles a train goes by and the conductor let's all hell go on the horn.. he's as surprised to see me as I am to see him.. I keep going, realizing I might be spotted but I might as well make the best of it.. I want to cross all the way now, get to Promontory Point, find people there, and drop off Psychotic Jeffrey Lebowski, Batty Bob Segar, before he kills me or I kill him.. it's exhilarating.. I see the two colors, one side saltier than the other.. it's blazing sunny, and the mountains shimmer in the heat all around me.. I want to stop and take it all in but I am pedal down, even though even he seems to notice and be taking it in.. little by little Promontory point arrives, not before I pass another train, and when I get there, hit land from the gravel road that runs the whole length of the causeway, I find an open gate at the end, but not much approaching civilization, just some abandoned industrial yards, evidence of shrimp fishing fleets gone bad, and some neglected state parkey stuff.. I spot the causeway going east again, the other side, but I know I have to go north to some town to unload my hazardous materials passenger. I'm on the road along the east side of Promontory Point.. it turns out it's quite long, and I'm gunning all 8 cylinders.. I pass small Mormon looking settlements but again, realize this isn't the place to leave him. He says something to me to the effect that I don't have to drive so much after more than an hour of awkward silence.. he's a bit stunned.. I realize he's relaxing and coming back to earth, but I resolve to get him back to population, and still finish crossing that causeway, to not let this screw me up.. I drive and drive, past the golden spike national historic park, past some odd rocket factory, and finally make it to the junction of I-84 and I-15, pulling up to a gas pump.. I sadly inform him that this is where he and I part fro the safety of the fuel island.. he offers to buy me dinner at a truck stop in the waning light, but I politely refuse, slip him a 20, and wish him luck.
I'm obsessed with this causeway now..
new and old..
if I can make it across half, can I make it across the whole thing.. I'm intrigued, by it's history, and by it's current environmental impact.. I had read about the lake being split in two once.. the salinity greater on one side, and how hard it is to explain to people who see it as a wasteland, the practical Mormons who control Utah Politics, and the thrifty Railroad men. Its hard to advocate for a lake that no one really boats on, lives on, swims in or makes much money off of (brine shrimp, AKA the sea monkey industry, used for I think animal feed and hard to tell what else, does pump 57 million into the Utah economy, but that's not much in the grand scheme of things these days..).
It's almost like the great test of environmental honor; you can only argue for the Great Salt Lake on it's intrinsic environmental merits.. it has no NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard ) bedfellows, its only worth what it's worth to shrimpers, magnesium harvesters, flamingos, and the daring few who venture out on it, driven by a mad companion or just madness themselves.
I drive back down the point through the dark, and find what I think is the west entrance to the east causeway.. ( it tunrs out mit might have been a water control structure north of it) it's got threatening signs.. I can tell many more people make it here than the set from the Spaghetti Western I departed from north of Dugway Proving Ground, but the gate is down, and I roar across.. I pass little industrial facilities, that look like pump stations, go over little archway bridges with sill more threatening signs, and even dim my headlights.. I start to worry.. there is an air force base to the east of me.. will it dump me into that.. are there yet more AFSP watching me with Nogs right now wondering what the hell is up with the  RV crossing the causeway at 11pm..  the terrorists in Back to the Future had an RV (OK, a VW bus, but close..), could this be a terrorist attack.. can we kill them boss!?
I end up on dirt berms.. I'm driving with my headlights off again, and feel the calm of marsh around me.. the road is wide again.. I have made it across.. arrested or not, I sate my obsession, and ponder how I might explain this to a judge.. I just had to see it your honor.. explorer's burden..
I realize I am a bit lost, know I am still headed east-ish, but I see pumps running and salt lagoons filling up and emptying, evaporating ponds like at the south end of the dead sea. I have seen salting operations up close in Namibia and Mexico, so I know what is around me just by the pumps.. I come across a vehicle, and know the gig is up.. his headlights come on, and he pulls next to me, and doesn't even ask, just sees the RV and knows it's too weird to be dangerous. I think he was Native American.. he gives me a wide eyed look, and I shrug and tell him I am lost, and he motions me to follow him to the gate, with a funny smile and shrug.
he leads me out past what turns out to be the Magnesium plant.. the tracks have disappeared to our south.. it's a big factory, roaring in the night, dark but for lights on the smoke stacks, and we end up at a security shack at an entrance.. I pull up.. my guide slides out of his truck and walks to the security guard, a nice earnest young Mormon guy, explains coming across me 5 minutes ago to him, and he's so amused that I somehow got back there with an RV he just offers to let me go.. he tells me I was trespassing, but kind of shakes his head in amazement, and I smile and tell him I'm just relived this ain't the air force base. He laughs, and asks me if I crossed the causeway.. I demure, say something garbled, then I press the advantage and ask if there is a place to sleep by the lake, which is all I was looking for just hours ago.. he tells me to take the road out, and take a left then a right off the road from the base.. he and the Indian are laughing and staring at me as I wave goodbye and roar off.. don't that beat all I can hear them saying..
I find my place in a state game preserve, stare at the stars to relax, pass out, wake up the next morning, cook breakfast, and wind my way down to Antelope Island for my last night, and yes, I pay the entrance fee and for my camping spot like a normal human being.
As many of you know, as with global temperature, nature isn't static, but it moves slowly, like a bureaucrat, or a sloth, and most things have time to adjust if they haven't painted themselves into an ecological corner...when man is short sighted, he creates changes much faster than nature can adapt, and he starts to wreak havoc with natural balances that a lot of things depend on, migrating birds, shrimp, animals, and even nature lovers.. survival of the fittest argues that Adaptation is the Rule of the Wild when change is inevitable, but there is a sensibility of fair play that is being applied by conservatives and liberals alike in the Global Warming Right, in the moves to restore the Everglades with Bridges and maybe save the Vaquita with more fresh water flowing into the Sea of Cortez that says that it's not fair to change things as quickly as humans do to an ecosystem, intentionally or not, shortsightedly or not, which grates the conservative sense of fair play in a place like Utah the way a deflated football might.. it just doesn't seem right.
The hope comes in here.. after that adventure, when I got to the Little America Motel, my favorite SLC haunt, I did some internet snooping before a truck driver buddy of mine showed up to bring me back to Reno for my next event, and I learned about the emerged two lakes, the difference in Salinity, dramatic enough to change the lake to too salty on one side and not salty enough on the other, and I learned how the lack of circulation is helping evaporation, keeping the water from sinking and cooling and circulating in it's old way like the inter-oceanic heat conveyor, Thermohaline Circulation, on a small scale, and making the lake smaller than it has been in a while. while there is no direct correlation in the chart below between lake levels and the causeway or maybe global warming, the salinity thing is quite obvious, and visible..

 The shrimp have a goldilox dilemma.. one side is too salty, the north, 28% salty, the other too sweet, the south, declining to it's present 11%. Ocean water settles in at 3.5 %. It happens because there are no major natural tributaries to that north west corner of the lake other than rain water, which is as you know not in prodigious amounts in the desert, and that area, unlike the south and east parts of the lake, doesn't have the runoff from the grand Wasatch Range, famous for it's powdery skiing.

The lake used to be someplace between the 11% and the 28% salinity mark where it maxes out the holding ability of water, and starts to form a film, as it is on the north end now 5 feet thick, like a liner of sorts, all because of my buddy the causeway.. it's not in the middle where it has been for a few thousand or more years, and that's affecting the shrimp, who know their niche, and the things that feed on them, birds that end up in Alaska, Russia, or South America to name a few spots. This isn't just a local issue. If affects habitats far and wide if the lake can't support it's transient, let alone permanent population.. What if people starved at Salt Lake City Bus Station, before catching the next 'Dirty Dog' to California.. someone would say something I would imagine.
So this is where hope jumps into my RV, because the conclusion I came to a few years back was that this problem had few advocates and no solution in site.. by my present math I was wrong, because I know how long it takes to design a bridge, and it appears one will be done by October of this year, the year of our lord 2016.
It turns out the railroad company, Union Pacific, the dominant western freight server which took it over from the former Southern Pacific Railroad Company (links for you foamers !) sometime in the 90's after SP's dissolution, had taken note, and was getting a bit embarrassed by the situation perhaps. Why? Railroads have become a symbol of efficient, AKA green transportation recently, as the world fights to end the carbon era.. if you are going to maintain a modern lifestyle and fight carbon, the iron horse is considered an ingredient in that effort since it's more efficient than a truck, airplane and I think even a boat in moving cargo around the world, and the Railroad companies have motive to make it more efficient as time goes by. One company advertised they could move a ton of freight on one gallon of fuel 500 miles.. from my math that beats a truck by a little bit, which by my math needs three times as many baked dinosaur bones to do the same work. Before I started peeking into this again in the last few days, I had assumed that UP would go for a huge government funded reconstruction job, like the Tamiami Trail on the Everglades, 20 miles of cement pylons and work work work, money money money, but from what I can tell, UP is doing this work on their own and of their own accord. According to the press, they applied for permission to do the work in 2011, a few years before my adventure.. I just wasn't paying attention I guess, and work began in the fall of 2015!

It's an inherent instinct of environmentalists to distrust the motives of corporations.. they by reputation have but one motive, greed, and many companies live up to that reputation handily, and history is riddled with massive examples of corporate greed happening at the expense of environmental cleanliness, diversity and health, including at the expense of homo sapiens survival. Does UP want some 'green washing', the communication term for aligning a company's public image with environmentalism, no matter the actual deeds they do? Did making a bridge make sense no matter the environmental consequences, and it just made sense anyhow, or are they really just doing the right thing for the right reason? I'm not a civil engineer, a railroad executive, or a hydrologist to judge, and I wasn't in the room to know, but I know I like what I see happening, and I think it's if not an ultimate solution, a step in the right direction.
The bridge is going to be a 180 foot span with rock flanges to keep the water flowing, hopefully from north to south but either direction is good I think. I haven't heard math to know how long it would take to either completely even out the balance or even it out enough to ameliorate damage to the brine shrimp based ecosystem, but this is a small little big deal. While the world is focused on the Panama Canal expansion, a similar effort that is good for business but might have environmental benefits due to efficiency of transport (ships, and I know from experience, are huuuge polluters, but size means savings, ecological and financial in that business. Unfortunately, like with the causeway, making shipping more efficient also makes transporting carbon fuels cheaper, and that makes them by the laws of economics more accessible, but let's focus on the good.). Panama is far from most American's minds except those in the transportation business, charming and amusing little place though I know it to be, but this is on our turf and it's a noble act from what I can tell..
Here's hoping the results are of benefit to all the birds and bees in the Salt Lake Valley, and to their human appreciators as well.. I look forward to the completion of the bridge this fall, and the reunion of the salty waters once again. Like the pulse flow on the Colorado or the release of water under Tamiami trail bridge, this is a big moment in American conservation coming up. For those who love the wilds of Utah, this truly is the place, and the place is about to get a bit healthier.
Now were the Aral Sea, Mesopotamian Marshes, Mono Lake, The Dead Sea, Lake Orumiyeh, The Salton Sea, and others like it so easy to fix..but hope starts small, 180 feet at a time..

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