The Great Salt Lake is Thirsty
For Cargill’s salt plant in Utah, a healthy ecosystem and a legion of 4th-graders hold the keys to the future.
September 11, 2017
Before he watched 4th-graders storm the beaches with glee, before he learned about the brine shrimp and the migrating grebes, before he’d poked his feet into the spongy tufts of algae, saw the oolitic sand bubble and foam, or learned how to spell “oolitic” for that matter, Matt Potter thought it was “just a big, stinky lake.”
The maintenance superintendent for Cargill’s salt plant in Grantsville, Utah, worked on the doorstep of the Great Salt Lake for years without paying it much heed. “I thought it was just something we took salt from,” he said. “I thought it was dead.”
He doesn’t think so anymore.
On a sunny Tuesday morning in May, he’s serving as a one-man audience as a student named Zariah sculpts a model with her bare hands. Caked in sand, she excavates a broad, shallow bowl for the basin and carves three winding grooves for the rivers that feed it—“Bear, Weber and Jordan,” she explains.
Exploring the shoreline with her are nearly 100 of her classmates from Settlement Canyon Elementary School. They’re guided by a trio of instructors from FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, a local nonprofit dedicated to the environmental health of the lake, and a handful of volunteers from the salt plant about 20 minutes up the road.
Some are tracking brine shrimp in the shallows. Others are watching in awe as the sand, rich in minerals that are essentially a cousin to baking soda, reacts to vinegar.
For many of them, it’s their first trip to the lake—a vast natural resource overlooked in its own backyard even as it lends its name to the state capitol. The same holds true for many of the volunteers, some of whom have spent years working on salt ponds without giving a second thought to the body of water that fills them.
Together, they learn just how much depends on taking care of that big, stinky lake.
The Great Salt Lake is Thirsty
The Cargill salt plant in Grantsville harvests many tons of salt each year, culled from ponds that span 10,000 acres just southwest of the lake. The facility, which runs 24 hours a day, has been there since 1901. Cargill has operated it since 1997.
Salt is carried into the lake by tributary freshwater rivers, dissolved in trace amounts. As the water evaporates, the salt remains, trapped without an outlet. The salt plant pumps in brine—a mixture of water and salt—to the ponds alongside the facility. There, the water evaporates, leaving behind tracts of crystal salt for trucks to scoop up. That salt is cleaned, dried, and sorted by size. An array of precision machinery processes it for a range of uses: pool cleaners, water softeners, animal feed products, salt licks.
Maintaining the water level of the lake is crucial for the business. The lower it drops, the more concentrated the salt in the water. That in turn makes the brine harder to pump—it doesn’t flow as freely and it evaporates faster in transit, leaving salt behind before it reaches the ponds. The cost to pump it—and the cost of water for the plant—rise. If the lake gets too low, the plant might lose access to certain areas altogether.
The delicate balance is complicated by the lake’s propensity to wax and wane dramatically for reasons both natural and man-made. Sitting on a broad but shallow basin with an average depth of just 14 feet, in a desert with erratic precipitation, the Great Salt Lake has ranged from a surface area of nearly 2,500 square miles in the 1980s to around 900 in recent years. Its high-water mark has fluctuated by about 20 feet over 160 years of record-keeping. Every inch the water level falls reduces the surface area by 100,000 acres.
The region is thirsty—Utah is regularly among the heaviest water users per capita in the nation—and its population is growing. The three rivers that feed the lake are prime targets for diversions, but whatever comes out of them also comes out of the water level.
“We want a healthy lake and a sustainable lake,” said Ryan Doherty, the plant manager. “When the lake has water, everything’s healthy.”
That’s how FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake sees it, too. Watershed protection and restoration are paramount to the group’s environmental mission. Shrinking water levels wreak havoc on the ecosystem, squeezing the habitat and food supply of local wildlife and millions of migratory birds that rely on it for nesting, resting and staging during their hemispheric journey. The exposed lakebed releases dust and dirt into the air that degrades air quality.
The nonprofit first encountered Cargill through the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, a group of stakeholders with a shared interest in the lake. Doherty and Lynn de Freitas, executive director of FRIENDS, both participate. At a meeting three years ago, they got to talking about developing a partnership.
Soon after, the two organizations hammered out the field trip program for the local school district. Funded by about $20,000 a year in Cargill grants, it brings to life concepts from the 4th-grade science curriculum like biomes, adaptation and the water cycle.
Betsy Swynenburg, Settlement Canyon’s principal, said the school was delighted by the opportunity, which without Cargill’s backing would have strained its budget.
“We said, ‘we’d love to do this,’” she said. “They get to come out and see why we have a salt lake in the middle of the desert.”
It’s part of a broader set of investments the salt business is making in science, technology, engineering and math programs, known as STEM education, across the United States—others include a software-assisted design program in New York, a robotics program and science fair in Louisiana, and scholarships and teacher training in California.
“We invest in STEM because we know that these are the skills our industry will need in the future,” said Salt Group Leader Marcelo Montero. “For our business, environmental science is particularly important because salt production depends on a healthy ecosystem.”
In Utah, about 1,900 students from the Tooele School District have participated since the program began in 2015. The goal: Let them explore and forge a connection with an ecosystem they might otherwise overlook.
“They’re going to be scientists today,” said Janessa Edwards, director of outreach and education for FRIENDS, as she addressed a group of Cargill volunteers waiting for students to arrive. “Let them get dirty, let them interact with it, let them learn.”
Reaching a new generation
Cargill’s ties to the program go far beyond cutting a check. The Grantsville plant, much like the lake it abuts, is essentially a closed system, fed by Interstate 80 and hemmed in by the Wasatch Mountains. The vast majority of its 100-plus employees and their families live in the same few communities, go to the same Tooele County schools and run in the same circles. Many of them have seen multiple generations of family come through the plant.
Cargill volunteers staff field trips that their own children are taking or will one day take, lending much-needed hands and eyes as Edwards and her instructors corral busloads of children down to the beach and ankle-deep into the water.
Since the field trip program began in 2015, more than two dozen plant employees have devoted some 216 volunteer hours to the effort.
Some, like Katie Potter—Matt’s wife—are veterans. A graduate student in environmental science and a mother of three, she’s a believer in the excursions.
“In order to protect something, you have to care about it,” she said. “In order to care about it, you have to know about it.”
Over the course of a few hours, students get a first-hand lesson in the ecosystem of the lake. They make models in the sand, dutifully reciting the key features before a few succumb to the urge to play Godzilla. They learn about oolitic sand—formed as calcium carbonate gloms onto organic waste—and watch it fizz over when mixed with vinegar. They nibble on pickleweed, an edible plant that thrives in the salty conditions and has a following as a salad delicacy on the west coast.
They chase down brine shrimp—innumerable eyelash-sized lake dwellers—with plastic cups in the shallows, looking for the difference between males and females and exclaiming, “I got a girl!” when they spot the telltale egg pouch carried by the latter. They learn about the 7 million-plus migratory birds (the students’ guesses on the exact number range from “a hundred and ten” to “a quadrillion”) who use the lake as a waypoint each year, gorging themselves on shrimp and brine flies as fuel for their travels.
Other volunteers are learning right along with the kids. Ray Stewart, a harvest utility operator at the plant, is there to see his granddaughter. “I’ve lived here my whole life and never heard of pickleweed,” he says with a grin. “I had never heard of oolitic sand. The lake’s been here, and I never took the time.”
His experience underscores the region’s relationship with the lake, which ranges from ambivalence to mild disdain. It’s not a hub for recreation like a freshwater lake might be. It doesn’t support fish. It’s a haven for brine flies and a particularly aggressive breed of nibbling gnats. And hydrogen sulfide, the byproduct of bacteria breaking down dead algae, emits the palpable smell of rotten eggs. Legend holds that the first European explorers to come across it took a drink, spat out the water in disgust and declared it worthless.
FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake is working to unwind that perception. “We want them to get an experience they remember and that cultivates a relationship with the landscape,” Edwards said. “Our hope is that eventually we won’t even need to do advocacy because future generations of kids will just talk about their experiences with the lake in daily conversations with their friends and their families.”
After successfully wrangling a group of students out of their shoes and onto a tarp, she explains how much water the state uses and how small conservation steps can add up.
“When I tell you to do things like take shorter showers, you might think it doesn’t make a difference,” she says, “but if everybody does some little things, it’s a lot.”
As Matt Potter sees it, the students add up, too.
“If every 4th grader in Tooele County gets this for the next 10 or 15 years, what is that going to do for everyone’s understanding?” he asks.
The field trip lasts a few hours. After rinsing off the sand and salt, students eat a picnic lunch, line up for a photo and file back onto the bus.
Before they go, Edwards lets them in on a little secret: they don’t need her to come back.
“Bring your family here,” she says. “Bring your mom and dad and brothers and sisters, and teach them what I taught you.”