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SALTAIR -- One of Utah's biggest and most unusual companies tried to appease critics Thursday by announcing a major revision of its expansion plans. But it didn't work. Opponents still call it "the greatest threat of our generation" to the Great Salt Lake.
At issue is an enormous proposed expansion of Great Salt Lake Minerals Corporation, which already has operations spanning the lake's northern reaches west of Ogden.
The lake is nearly at historic lows right now and is surrounded by vast mud flats. Battle lines are hardening around an unanswered question: Will the company's expansion lower the lake level even further?
Dozens of evaporation ponds already cover 73 square miles. Great Salt Lake Minerals proposes to triple its ponds to 215 square miles.
By evaporating lake water, the company has become the nation's only supplier of the fertilizer S.O.P., Sulfate of Potash. "We need to expand to meet the future needs of America's growers," said company spokesman Dave Hyams. "S.O.P. is used by every grower of fruits, orchard, nut growers throughout the country."
But a coalition of wildlife and conservation groups is battling the expansion as a threat to the Great Salt Lake. "It's the biggest one of our generation," said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake. "Certainly there are going to be impacts on habitat because of less water."
The company originally asked for an additional 353,000 acre-feet of water each year. In the new expansion plan, they've backed off. The area covered by the new ponds would remain huge: 91,000 acres. But the extra water they're asking for is being reduced. The company says new methods have been developed that make water use more efficient. "We're able to reduce the water request by more than half," Hyams said.
But that still would mean up to 150,000 acre-feet of additional water each year that would be cycled through the evaporation ponds, in addition to about 156,000 acre-feet that is currently used. In other words, the company would roughly triple its surface area and double its water use under the new plan.
The expansion project is expected to add 100+ construction jobs and 70 new full-time jobs, and contribute more than $100 million in additional royalties for Utah.
Critics plan to keep fighting. They say the expanded water use is likely to damage the lake's ecosystem. They also don't believe the company has a market for the additional fertilizer. "It's essentially speculating with the resource," de Freitas said. "And this is a public trust that belongs to the people of Utah."
The company argues the lake has gone up and down since Great Salt Lake Minerals began operations started in 1970. "The level is exactly the same today as it was before we started," Hyams said. "It's pretty hard to assess what impacts the level of the lake." The company is proposing a phased expansion schedule that would theoretically allow time at each phase for monitoring the consequences of expansion.
The ball is in the air right now. The company needs approval from state and federal agencies. That will likely involve lengthy environmental studies, and lots more debate.