Clash of resources: Balancing birds and industry on Great Salt Lake

Tribune Editorial

Article Last Updated: 03/27/2008 07:21:31 PM MDT


The Great Salt Lake is one of the most important nurseries and restaurants for migrating birds in North America. At the same time, through the operations of Great Salt Lake Minerals, part of a publicly traded company, it also is the largest producer of sulfate of potash, a specialty fertilizer, in North America.
The minerals company wants to expand its evaporation ponds on the lake to produce more sulfate of potash. The question that federal regulators must answer, through an environmental impact statement, is whether the fertilizer operation can be expanded without damaging the bird resource.
If it can, that would be good for the Utah economy and for farmers who use sulfate of potash to fertilize fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and turf grasses.
But if the evaporation ponds cannot be expanded by 31,000 acres, as the company proposes, without endangering wetlands in Bear River Bay on the lake's eastern shore, and in Clyman Bay near Gunnison Island in the lake's western waters, both of which are critical to birds, then the project must not be allowed.
We will not prejudge the case. The environmental impact statement is in its early stages and is scheduled for completion in early 2009.
Nor do we know whether this is an all-or-nothing proposition. Perhaps a smaller expansion of the evaporation ponds would achieve something closer to the proper environmental balance.
What we do know is that the ecology of the Great Salt Lake is delicate and subject to ever larger human impacts. It would be a tragic mistake to tip that resource over the edge into rapid decline.
The Utah Department of Natural Resources already has approved 23,000 acres of new leases to GSL Minerals in Clyman Bay. In addition, the company seeks to develop 8,000 acres of leases it already owns on Bear River Bay. By comparison, the company operates 43,000 acres of ponds on the lake now.
The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge lies to the north of the latter site. Gunnison Island, a state waterfowl sanctuary and critical rookery for about 10,000 American white pelicans and their chicks annually, lies east of Clyman Bay.
And throw this into the equation: The method that GSL Minerals uses to produce potassium sulfate can be called environmentally benign, in one way, because it is fueled directly by the sun (through evaporation) rather than hydrocarbons.
So striking the right balance may not be simple. But it is critical to the lake's ecosystem, which must be preserved, whatever the cost.