The future of the Great Salt Lake and Water
Submitted by: Bernard Lopez
To see the future of Utah’s Great Salt Lake (GSL), one must look to the past. For years the state has wrestled with what to do about this historic land mass, the largest in the western hemisphere. Over the years, the GSL has been in decline. According to an article by Newsweek, the lake once spanned 8,550 square kilometers (3,301 square miles) during its high point in the 1980s. Since then, 2000 square kilometers of the lakebed has been exposed. It now only holds one-quarter of the volume of water it used to.
The shrinking of the GSL has caused major concern for everyone. It is home to a diverse number of plants, animals, birds, and other wildlife. Even the water itself is home to brine shrimp, which many birds rely on as their food source. As the water recedes the brine shrimp die off, leaving many birds without a food source. Think about the implications of that.
So, what is the answer? Before we dive into that I’d like to take you to the past and talk about potash. Potash? What is potash and what does that have to do with the GSL? In 1916 at the Salduro Salt Marsh, also known as the Bonneville Salt Flats, underground potash mining began. Potash and salt mining have been a part of the landscape and our history ever since. The history dates further back to when Native Americans used salt from the GSL but for the purpose of this paper, we don’t need to dig back that far. Although that begs the question about Native American rights to the land.
The history of the GSL is fascinating and I wish now that I would have studied more about geology in my youth. The GSL is a large, ancient, cyclic lake. For the purpose of this article, I will discuss the most current cycle, called the Lake Bonneville cycle. The cycle occurred from about 32,000 to 14,000 years ago. It had a depth of approximately 1,000 feet and covered over 20,000 square miles in western Utah. It also reached out to southern Idaho and eastern Nevada. That is a lot of ground covered by water. What is interesting about this lake and what would later become an important conversation between state legislators, private industry, and Utah citizens is the magnesium, salt, and lithium, among other minerals. The lake was predominantly fresh water however, it had “small amounts of dissolved salt, including chlorides and sulfates of sodium, potassium, and magnesium. These dissolved salts precipitated on the surface of the Salduro Salt Marsh as the lake evaporated and are the source material from which potash is produced”.
Between 1914-1918, Germany was a main supplier of potash but with the blockade of Germany by Great Britain, supplies were cut off and the U.S. had to look for other options. Luckily, by 1906 the Salduro Salt Marsh was gaining recognition by engineers building the Western Pacific Railroad across the western Utah desert. As a result, mining claims started popping up and eventually the Montello Salt Company was formed. Montello was short lived as they were not profitable and the claims were leased to the Capell Salt Company. By 1916-1917, the Capell Salt Company had been merged with the Solvay Process Company and it was at this time that they started extracting potash from the subsurface brines of the Salduro Salt Marsh.
Over the course of time, many companies tried yet failed to make a successful attempt at mining the potash. Unlike today, where we now face a lake that is in danger of drying up, owners/developers faced other challenges. Too much water in the spring hindered development and the wave action would destroy dikes and fill the brine collection ditches with large amounts of sediment. And finally, the wind. The wind made the working conditions extremely unpleasant.
As with all things, progress continues, and the mining industry moved forward. Today potash, salt, and magnesium are mined from the GSL. However, with the growing trend to demonize fossil fuels and force everyone to green energy, lithium has become a major player and companies are scrambling to cash in on the money to be made.
Environmentally speaking, “clean energy” has a dirty secret. The trend and almost cult like excitement over electric vehicles has blinded a large majority of people into believing that we will be saving the environment if we switch from gas powered vehicles to “clean” electric vehicles. The issue becomes problematic however, because electric vehicles reduce fossil fuel emissions only after they are road ready. According to Alex Kim from Climate News 360, the production of the lithium-ion batteries that power them causes more displacement and CO2 emissions than the production of regular gas-powered cars. Disposal of the batteries at the end of their life cycle is also a growing concern.
The energy it takes to produce electric vehicles is more material intensive. For example, 15 tonnes of CO2 are emitted for every tonne of lithium mined. The push to drive gas powered vehicles into extinction is being forced upon the American public but the electric vehicle alternative may be more harmful in the long run. The mining process for lithium is labor intensive, involves chemicals, and it requires tremendous amounts of water. The process can leave behind contaminants and toxic waste. Don’t forget about the batteries. Battery disposal is also a major concern as it poses a threat to the environment as well. “A study from Australia found that 98.3% of lithium-ion batteries, not exclusively car batteries, end up in landfills.” This has significantly increased the number of fires in landfills. T
urning your attention back to water, remember, the GSL is in dire straits and in danger of drying up so conservation efforts should be looked at to save this Utah treasure. The U.S. Magnesium plant is located on the western shore of the GSL. In 2016, U.S. Magnesium was the only producer of magnesium in North America. China is the world’s largest supplier of magnesium and without getting into a discussion about the complexity of the commodities market, the reason “U.S. Magnesium is able to compete is because of a somewhat controversial anti-dumping tariffs and because it uses the sun to extract the mineral from the Great Salt Lake brine”. However, what is extremely disturbing is the amount of water used in the process. According to Tom Tripp, the company’s technical services manager in 2016, “we have 65,000 acres of infill solar ponds. In the course of a year, we’re evaporating 40 billion gallons of water”. I had to do a double take and read that again, 40 billion gallons of water. Forty billion gallons of water used to extract magnesium from the GSL. Let that sink in for a moment. The GSL is in danger of drying up and yet in 2016, 40 billion gallons of water was evaporated to mine magnesium.
The numbers for the lithium process is even more water intensive. I have read articles where estimates range from 400 to 2 million liters of water per kilo of lithium. For those of you that do not work with liters, the conversion is approximately between 106 and 528,344 gallons of water used. Lithium extraction requires a tremendous amount of water. To break it down further, the necessary amount of water needed is approximately 500,000 gallons of water for every ton of lithium extracted.
The amount of water alone is extremely concerning especially when our precious lake is in danger of drying up. It would seem unbelievable that our state legislatures would allow this happen. In fact, there has been a lot discussion on the matter on how to save the lake. One of the ways to save the lake is to divert water from other sources and empty it in the GSL. On the surface that may sound like a good idea, however, according to Compass Minerals own website, they signed a binding, “multiyear supply agreement to provide LG Energy Solution (LGES), a leading global manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage systems, with battery-grade lithium carbonate from its Ogden, Utah solar evaporation lithium brine development”. They have agreed to deliver up to 40% of their phase one production to LGES.
It seems incredible that our state legislatures would allow for private companies to come in and make binding agreements to supply lithium when our precious lake is in danger of drying up. The amount of water needed is enormous and private companies are gaining access to our water by obtaining water rights. Ask yourself, do you believe the GSL is drying up due to drought or could there be other explanations?