The railroad causeway across the Great Salt Lake was built in 1959, and since then it’s permanently altered the lake’s natural water flow. Making changes to it could have unanticipated consequences for the lake environment. But Union Pacific Railroad officials say they have to do something now or it won’t be safe to run trains across the lake.
West of Ogden, a Union Pacific freight train heads toward the 54-year-old causeway that will take it across the Great Salt Lake. The causeway saves trains from a long detour, but it’s also been a headache. For the railroad, it’s expensive to maintain, and it’s deteriorated to the point that it needs emergency repairs this winter. But activists and scientists say the railroad’s troubles with the causeway could also present an opportunity to manage the lake’s ecosystems more conscientiously in the future.
Walt Baker is the director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. He says, "By virtue of constructing that causeway, we have two distinct ecosystems."
He continues, "I think it has allowed the brine shrimp to flourish. They would not be able to exist in the north arm of the lake given the salinity levels. They have a very narrow span of salinity that they exist in and can proliferate in, and so it’s allowed the brine shrimp to flourish and a brine shrimp industry to flourish, and serve as a source of food for those migratory birds that call the Great Salt Lake home.
Between harvesting brine shrimp eggs, tourism and extracting minerals from the water, the Great Salt Lake is worth about $1.3 billion to Utah’s economy each year. Changes in the water flow could potentially have huge impacts on those industries.
The limited flow between the two arms of the lake has depended on two culverts under the causeway. But they’ve been crumbling and sinking into the lake bed. Aaron Hunt with Union Pacific says they’ve become a safety issue they can’t put off any longer.
Hunt says, "As we continued to inspect those culverts, they progressively failed and they endangered the safe movement of freight rail traffic across the causeway."
Closing the culverts required permits from both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Utah Division of Water Quality. The Corps issued its permit December 6th, using a provision of the law that doesn’t require public comment. The state has also issued its permit, but with a public comment period that ends January 15th. Work on the east culvert began last week.
Union Pacific is proposing a permanent replacement for the culverts – a bridge with a 180-foot span that would allow water to pass through the causeway much more easily. The Corps of Engineers has extended a public comment period on that proposal through January 27th.
Lynn de Freitas is with the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake. She says handling the situation as an emergency is shortchanging a more thorough public process.
"We have concerns that the railroad has, essentially, known for quite some time about the structural integrity problems with the culverts, and so in its own time it has decided they’re huge emergencies that have to be dealt with now," de Freitas tells KUER.
And there’s a lot to think about as the plan for a new permanent structure is developed. Utah State University Professor Wayne Wurtsbaugh says water flows through the lake are complicated and potentially hazardous.
"The construction of the causeway has caused that, what’s referred to as the deep brine layer to form," Wurtsbaugh said in an interview. "And it’s a pretty nasty place. We have pictures of the water from there, and it’s just black, and it’s full of hydrogen sulfide gas, which is toxic. It’s full of really high concentrations of methyl mercury, which is highly toxic and it has no oxygen in there, so organisms can’t live in that layer at all.
Wurtsbaugh says the causeway emergency is also an opportunity to consider managing the lake in a more thoughtful way than just opening up a gap for water to flow through. He’s hoping gates or other control structures can be included in the project.
"Those types of control structures are built elsewhere," he says. "They would be more expensive than a simple bridge, but given the value of the causeway and the importance of the lake, both economically for the salt industry and the brine shrimp industry and for the environmental aspects of it.
The Union Pacific’s Aaron Hunt says that can all be part of the discussions with the Corps of Engineers and the Utah Division of Water Quality -- as well as who should pay for a project that could be much more extensive than what the railroad has in mind today.
Hunt tells KUER, "That’ll all be part of the discussions that are ongoing in 2014. It’s difficult to talk about what implications there may be with different structures that may be proposed, but we’re committed to being part of that discussion and finding a solution that makes sense."
Everyone in the conversation agrees the clock is ticking – with both culverts closed, they can’t wait too long to get started on a permanent solution for restoring the flow between the north and south arms of the lake. Union Pacific is hoping to get permits for permanent modifications to its causeway this year and to start work in 2015.