Proposal for Union Pacific Railroad Communal Track to Serve Promontory Point Industries Lacks Necessary Details and Raises Red Flags

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

The Wizard of Oz

On August 7th, 2018, the Union Pacific Railroad (Union Pacific) submitted partial information to the Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) for a Pre-application Meeting on August 21st.  The meeting was intended to support Union Pacific’s request that the Corps authorize a Letter of Permission (LOP) for proposed “minor impacts” – less than one acre - to aquatic resources of the U.S. under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, and/or to navigable waters under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act.  These impacts would come from the construction of a communal track (industrial siding) at the Lakeside Subdivision on the Promontory Peninsula to support industry rail service on Promontory Point in Box Elder County, Utah. The estimated time to complete the project is 3 to 4 months.

For obvious reasons, whenever impacts to Great Salt Lake wetlands and waters are being considered, FRIENDS wants to know more about the issue. The Great Salt Lake Ecosystem is hemispherically important, ecological critical, and economically significant. Any proposals that could jeopardize the integrity of the system are always of great concern. Because the LOP process is tailored for small projects with “minor impacts” it’s streamlined. The Corps isn’t required to issue a public notice for public participation. Instead federal and state agencies are involved on behalf of the public interest. Under these circumstances, the applicant is required to provide a complete proposal two weeks in advance of the pre-application meeting to give the agencies adequate time to review it. Right out of the gate Union Pacific failed to meet this requirement. For starters, the proposal failed to include a complete description of the proposed activity including the purpose and need of the activity.

On August 10th FRIENDS filed an Expedited Freedom of Information Act Request with the Corps of Engineers. We wanted to review the pre-application information that would be discussed. We also requested a list of the invitees because we wanted to be sure that the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (which has jurisdictional management responsibility for Great Salt Lake), the Division of Water Quality, the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, and a representative from the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council (which advises the governor on Great Salt Lake issues) were also included. Except for the Division of Water Quality, the others were not on the list until we suggested them.

Our primary concerns with the proposal focus on the rationale and the process for authorization. What we saw in the pre-application information did not reflect the true scope of the proposed project because given where it is and its adjacency to Great Salt Lake, there’s no question that it would exceed the limits of “minor impacts.” This means that it doesn’t fit with the process that’s necessary for the Corps to issue a Letter of Permission. It doesn’t comply with meeting all of the criteria identified in an August 1, 2001 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Public Notice Implementation of Minor Impact Letter of Permission (LOP) Procedures in Utah, and with EPA’s 404(b)(1) Guidelines.

The other concern about it comes from our work on tracking the Promontory Point Resources, LLC (PPR) landfill on Promontory Peninsula (see Spring 2018 newsletter). In its application for a Class V permit that would allow it to take out of state waste, PPR stated that a railroad spur to move inventory onto the site would be needed. And although on February 16, 2018, PPR withdrew its Class V permit application, at that time under review by the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, rail access to that facility might make taking another run at it more attractive even though other obstacles still remain. Among those obstacles is a failing grade on its Needs Assessment Report which is used to determine whether another Class V landfill is even needed in Utah. With over 1000 years storage capacity among the existing facilities, that base is well covered. However, through the grapevine we have heard that an attempt to legislatively eliminate this evaluative criterion from the Administrative Rule puts a finer point on Union Pacific’s proposal.

You may recall that in response to PPR’s Class V application the Division was presented with a White Paper titled Great Salt Lake as an Ecologically Significant Natural Area by the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. This reference tool is intended to help enlighten the Division about the kinds of cumulative impacts this operation could have on the Lake and how much is at stake with this kind of adjacent land use.

So what’s there and what’s missing in the proposal?

The pre-application proposal is described as a “small construction activity” of less than 5 acres in scope. The construction of the communal track would consist of a new 1.2 mi. long parallel track with a western and eastern terminus located 115 ft. north of the existing mainline track. The mainline track we’re talking about here is the 21 mi. Union Pacific causeway that bisects Great Salt Lake and for about 5 miles runs around the tip of Promontory Peninsula where this activity would occur. Since the best design and exact location of the construction was based on accommodating the proposed rail car length, turning radius, and access to the industrial spurs referenced in the text and diagrams, it doesn’t seem likely that even this stepsister’s foot is going to fit into Cinderella’s shoe for a LOP authorization.

A July 27th aquatic resources delineation report identifies general cover types as playa and saline wet meadows. The proposal suggests that permanent wetland impacts to saline wet meadows from fill to construct the communal track would be less than one acre, or as indicated in Table 1. Permanent Wetland Impacts – a total of 0.994 acres. This is only 0.006 acres below the highest threshold for a Letter of Permission. That’s 260 square feet (how big is your livingroom?) Again, under the circumstances of where this activity would be happening, it’s inconceivable to think that secondary and cumulative impacts to wetlands and playas would not occur.

The proposal indicates that the design of the track is such that it avoids impacts to the playa part of the shoreline of the Lake. And although it claims that no hydrological connections will be impacted by the project, no proof other than surface observations is provided. We know that ample research exists that confirms that areas and wetlands around the Great Salt Lake have extensive hydrological connections. Much more is needed to show that there would be no impacts to springs, aquatic habitat, migratory bird breeding areas, threatened or endangered species, or the management of water flows that are a part of the interface of the landscape of Promontory and the Lake.

It’s stated that reseeding of peripheral vegetation would be addressed if necessary. And that best management practices would help avoid and minimize impacts. Mitigation between 1:1 and 2:1 to compensate for permanent wetland impacts would come from the purchase of saline wet meadow credits from the Machine Lake mitigation bank. However, the mitigation bank is meant to replace “isolated wetlands of minimal or degraded use” which these wetlands are neither. They are a part of a large and vital ecosystem. 

Soil erosion, sediment controls and permits for storm water discharges would be covered by Section 402 of the Clean Water Act and the Storm water Pollution Prevention Plan, although Union Pacific may apply for an “erosivity construction waiver” because of the “abbreviated” nature of the construction. A 401 Certification through the Division of Water Quality would also be required.

After careful analysis of the Implementation of Minor Impact Letter of Permission (LOP) Procedures in Utah, and EPA’s 404(b)(1) Guidelines our conclusion is that Union Pacific has failed to identify whether this activity qualifies as a “single and complete activity”, and is trying to segment out the cumulative impacts of this project by focusing only on the construction of the  “communal track”. This is intended to keep the designated impacts under the 1-acre threshold for a Letter of Permission, while ignoring what they’ve clearly designated as the “future rail connections.” By designating those connections as “future work by others” they appear to be trying to play a bit of a shell game with the Corps in order to avoid having to run the gauntlet for an Individual Permit authorization.

Forgive me for this exhaustive description and analysis of this proposal. Ironically, I could go on, but it’s important that we all recognize how much could go wrong and what this means to the Lake.

FRIENDS believes that this proposal should not be authorized under a Letter of Permission by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This proposal and the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem are worthy of the rigor, the scrutiny, and the public participation that an Individual Permit process would require.

In saline,

Lynn de Freitas, Executive Director

Join us December 3rd from 7:00-8:30 PM at the Bill & Vieve Gore School of Business Auditorium at Westminster College to hear updates from our Techinical Advisory Group.

WestminsterFlyer 2018.11.16

The Bear: Life and Death of a Western River

Chapter IV — Dissolution

by Leia Larsen, Standard Examiner

The Bear is the longest North American river that doesn't end in the sea.

Its mouth is at the Great Salt Lake, America's Dead Sea, the bottom of a terminal basin. But even as it ends, the Bear River supports life and livelihoods.

Its waters diffuse into abundant wetlands that support millions of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. It has carved minerals from mountains over millennia, which have concentrated in the Great Salt Lake and now support multi-million dollar extraction industries. Its nutrients feed algae in the lake, which in turn feed an abundance of brine shrimp. 

"Bear River is such a critical life-giving source for people and wildlife — all along its path — and ultimately as the greatest source of water for Great Salt Lake," said Marcelle Shoop, director of the Saline Lakes Program for the National Audubon Society.

The Bear is Great Salt Lake's largest tributary, bringing it 60 percent of its annual inflows.

But mid-October this autumn, the river instead disappeared into a vast mudflat that used to be Bear River Bay.

John Luft, director of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, has worked on the lake for 20 years. He had never seen it like this, in mid-October, so late past the end of irrigation season.

"There’s essentially nothing out there. Usually this time of year, there’s ... millions of birds out there. There basically were none," he said.

Click here to continue.

By Emma Penrod, Sierra Magazine

It’s early autumn and the reeds surrounding me are mostly dead, but they still sound very much alive, filled with the rush of the breeze, creaking insects, and the shy songs of birds.

My guide, long-time Utah birdwatcher and Audubon Council president John Bellmon, tells me that my keen ear, which hears elusive bird calls all around us, is a gift. Many people bird by ear, he says—you learn to identify the bird songs then follow the sound to its source for a glimpse of a new feathered friend to add to your “life list.”

I am not so easily convinced I have an aptitude for the hobby given my difficulty in actually locating birds of any note. I detect some movement in the reeds across a pond, prompting Bellmon to set up his sighting scope and peer inside. Mallard ducks, he declares. They’re the most common type of duck in Utah—nothing to write home about.

Not that home, for me, is very far.

I have lived in Utah my entire life, but I have never tried birdwatching—despite the fact that the state’s iconic Great Salt Lake is hemispheric mecca for birds. Millions of them—entire species, in some cases—rely on the wetland habitats that surround the lake. 

This remarkable landscape is rarely celebrated by the locals. Even life-long residents are often unaware of the natural resource in their backyard. Because of this disconnect, few are aware of plans for urbanization that stand to impact 11,000 to 15,000 acres of wetland habitat in northern Utah in the next few decades.

Galvanized by these threats, conservationists have banded together to help the public connect to their surroundings. That’s what has brought me to Farmington Bay on the southeast shore of the Great Salt Lake—the newly opened Eccles Wildlife Education Center, Bellmon had told me, was the perfect place for a first-time birdwatching lesson.

Click here to continue.

Monday, 15 October 2018 12:35

Fall Fundraiser Was A Briny Success

Thank you to the attendees, sponsors, and participants of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake's Fall Fundraiser, "Protection Through Partnerships." 

The evening was a briny success, featuring craft cocktails from Dented Brick Distillery, beer from RedRock Brewery, and dinner from Culinary Crafts.

This year's featured partner, Chris Cline of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services – Utah Field Office, offered a timely update of essential Great Salt Lake research. 

Anna Hansen of The Hex Press was on site printing tea towels and shirts with our custom FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake logo design. Our silent auction featured local goods and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. 

Thank you to our generous donors and thank you for recommitting yourselves to preserving and protecting Great Salt Lake. 

Click here to view photos from the event. All photographs by Charles Uibel of Great Salt Lake Photography. 

Click here to make an additional donation and help us reach our fundraising goal. 

FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake hosted the regional participation of The Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. On Saturday, September 15, over 60 volunteers removed 2,444.4 lbs. of trash and debris from the shoreline of our inland sea.

Thanks to generous sponsorships from Autoliv and BudgetDumpster, FRIENDS was able to expand this year’s cleanup and work at two primary sites: the Lee Creek Natural Area along the Lake’s south shore and the eastern shoreline of Antelope Island.

Of the debris volunteers removed were mattresses, televisions, a toilet, and a copy machine, as well as countless plastic bottles, plastic straws, shotgun shells, and cigarette butts. Hazardous waste was separated and disposed of responsibly.   

While it is unfortunate that some people continue to use Great Salt Lake as a dumping ground, this event helps promote Great Salt Lake’s hemispheric importance, and inspires others to preserve and protect it.

Thank you to our many individual volunteers and our community partners: Compass Minerals, Great Salt Lake Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, Utah Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands, and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.  

To read more about The Ocean Conservancy’s efforts, click here. 

To read more about BudgetDumpster's community programs, click here. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2018 08:46

Survey: Regional Water Efficiency

The Utah Division of Water Resources is engaged in a study to determine water efficiency potential by region. The result of this study will be new  regional and statewide water efficiency goals. Your, and your community's, input is an important part of this process. Please fill out the following survey yourself, and share the link via newsletter, social media, website and any other communications tools you use in order to help us gain the regional context needed. Also, please share it with your mayors, city councils, boards and employees. 

There will also be other opportunities to engage in this process, which will be announced in the coming weeks. Thank you for your participation and help getting the word out. 

Joshua Palmer; WE3 Section Manager

Utah Division of Water Resources


By Taylor Stevens, Salt Lake Tribune

Early Tuesday morning, Paul Hirst received a call with “unprecedented” news: Twenty-five million gallons of water had been drained from one of the Benchland Irrigation Water District’s reservoirs overnight, leaving it empty for the first time anyone working there can remember.

A water shortage, spurred by low snowpack, dry conditions and rapid population growth, led the district to implement tough usage restrictions earlier this month on the east Farmington residents it serves in Davis County.

“We use 30 million gallons a day [on average], which is obscene to be using that much water,” said Hirst, who’s a member of the district’s board of trustees. “There isn’t a supply large enough to meet that demand. So we have these reservoirs that we fill that then can take that demand but they don’t empty and they haven’t ever emptied — until now.” 

Even with a $50 fine for a first offense — and complete disconnection from the water system on the third — the district can’t seem to break customers of the habit of chronic overwatering, said Hirst. Officials issued 400 citations during their first enforcement last weekend of the watering restriction from 8 a.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Monday.

Hirst said he believes some of the people who received citations may have watered their lawns the entire night, in a “vindictive” effort to make a point. The district has received a number of angry calls and even threats of lawsuits over the restrictions.

Click here to continue reading.

Executive Director's Message – Summer 2018

“The Lake is as essential to who we are and what we are as anything. When Great Salt Lake is in peril, the state is in peril. “

–Warren Peterson, State Water Strategy Advisory Team Co-chair

 On March 23, 2018, water right application No. 23-3972 was filed jointly by the Utah Division of Water Resources, and the Water Resources Board of Idaho for 400,000 acre.-ft. of Bear River water. The application was filed with the Utah Division of Water Rights and proposes to store, and appropriate water that would normally be released from Bear Lake or bypass Bear Lake as a part of flood control during spring runoff. The sources of this water would include:

1) “The Bear River” (which provides the lion’s share of inflows (60%) to Great Salt Lake)

2) “Flood control releases tributary to Bear River”

3) Bear Lake inflows “tributary to Bear River”

Got that?

 Beneficiaries of this stored and appropriated water would include agricultural irrigators within the Bear River Basin in Utah and Idaho, together with municipal and industrial users in selected counties in southern Idaho and along the Wasatch Front. And, although recreation and the environment have been gratuitously tossed into the mix of these beneficiaries, it’s too early to say what that would look like. The Division of Water Resources (Water Resources) is emphasizing that the only way to provide insightful scenarios to answer questions being raised about volume, distribution, timing of flows, and environmental impacts or benefits to Bear Lake and Great Salt Lake will come through improved modeling of the Bear River system. Currently, the model of the system stops at the state line between Utah and Idaho. To develop a more comprehensive understanding, modeling needs to extend to the river’s headwaters in the High Uintas. This will take months, money, and an interstate effort. 

It should be noted that Idaho had initially intended to file the Bear River water right application on its own. However in February, Utah was invited to participate, as was Wyoming – which declined. I do wonder what might have happened if Utah had not been asked to file jointly.  

Although many people were surprised by the news when it was finally made public more than a week after the filing, it’s fair to say that the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (State Lands) and PacifiCorp were totally blindsided. 

State Lands is a sister division with Water Resources in the Department of Natural Resources. Its jurisdictional responsibility is to manage the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem as a public trust resource in perpetuity for the people of Utah. About a year ago, it completed a multi year process to develop a tool called the Great Salt Lake Integrated Water Model (GSLIM). The price tag for that was $400,000. The purpose of this model is to help State Lands manage the Lake and its resources more effectively by taking into account upstream diversions in the watershed. To say the least, this water right filing would be a significant factor in that management dynamic and until the revised Bear River model is incorporated into the GSLIM no one can fully predict how various scenarios of Bear River storage and future development will alter the Lake. 

PacifiCorp has been operating on the Bear River since practically the dawn of creation. It’s a source of hydroelectric power in Utah and Idaho, delivers irrigation water to stakeholders along the Bear River, and operates the top 21.65’ of Bear Lake as a storage reservoir for flood control. Through court decrees, the Bear River Compact, and other settlement agreements, PacifiCorp has legal and contractual responsibilities that it is expected to meet. At the very least, in both the interest of working to achieve effective interdivisional communication, as well as promoting the practice of interstate comity, you would think that these two key stakeholders would have been notified in advance of the filing. 

It’s difficult not to confuse this joint water right application with the Bear River Development Project because the initial amount of water that Utah and Idaho can develop under the Project is the same – 400,000 acre-ft. – sort of. And although Water Resources says that this water is for flood storage in Bear Lake and not for development, it’s troubling nonetheless. It’s troubling because the annual flow of Bear River into Great Salt Lake is about 1.2 million acre-feet. And the basic fact here is that taking water out of the Bear River system is taking more water out of the system. And that’s a lot of water and the Lake can’t afford it. So we’ve got to push the pause button, comment and protest, and require the necessary scrutiny that the Lake deserves. If the application is approved by Utah and Idaho water authorities, we need to be sure that at the very least, there is no net decrease, and indeed, that some additional water comes to the Lake.  

But more to the point with this filing, it is a clarion call for Great Salt Lake’s future. This will be the first of many water claims on the Lake that will succeed in its demise of a death by a thousand cuts unless we declare our intention to save it NOW!

When the Bear River Compact was amended in 1980, it allocated ALL the waters of the Bear River – to Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. And none for the Lake itself. So much for Utah’s last untapped water source. These allocations include additional storage of 75,000 acre-ft. above Bear Lake, and additional depletion/consumption of 400,000 acre-ft. below Bear Lake, which is something we should all find unconscionable. The first right to develop and deplete would go to Idaho –125,000 acre- ft. and then to Utah – 275,000 acre- ft. If there is anything left beyond that depletion, Utah and Idaho can each deplete an additional 75,000 acre-ft. of water. Any remaining water would be divided up on a 70/30 basis. This would be a total depletion of 550,000 acre-ft. of Bear River water and the demise of Great Salt Lake as we know it. Average lake elevations would hover between 4192’ and 4194’ for extensive periods of time (20-40 yrs) exposing untold thousands of acres of lakebed to potential dust events, navigation and recreation would be severely impacted, Gunnison Island, home to the 3rd largest breeding population of American White Pelicans in North America would be exposed for periods of 40 years, migratory bird use and habitats would be in trouble, and all industries including the brine shrimp fishery would be significantly impacted. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. 

In Leia Larsen’s April 4th Standard Examiner article about the UT/ID water right, Eric Millis, Water Resources director and Bear River Commissioner said, “It is water that would’ve gone to Great Salt Lake, that’s true. I think in the discussion we have to have, we’d be looking at what we are doing to and for Great Salt Lake in all of this.”

What’s important to remember in this conversation is how critical timing and the volume of inflows to the Lake are. There is a direct effect on lake levels that in turn influences ecological dynamics and economic values of the system. That’s why in this newsletter we have included a protest filed against application No. 23-3972 by Dr. Wally Gwynn. Although no formal public notification of the application has been made yet, when the news of the joint filing became public, protests were immediately being filed. Gwynn has calculated how 400,000 acre- ft. of Bear River inflows to Great Salt Lake at different elevations has a significant impact on salinity, the brine shrimp fishery, migratory birds, and mineral extraction. When you fold climate change into the mix, you’ll see how that amount of water flowing into the Lake from the Bear River provides a critical cushion for the system. Without this cushion there will be dire consequences to the Lake. In the initial characterizations of the joint filing by Water Resources about how Great Salt Lake could fit into the “Win-Win-Win” outcome it envisioned, water to the Lake would be too little and too late to address the cushion Gwynn identifies. 

Since Great Salt Lake belongs to all of us as a public trust resource, Water Resources is conducting a scoping process. It’s an attempt to bring stakeholders up to speed on this issue, hear our questions and concerns, and engage us more fully. To date, Water Resources has met with 33 different stakeholder interests that include representatives from Idaho and Wyoming, PacifiCorp, water conservation districts, conservation, recreation, and GSL interests, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, the State Water Development Commission, GSL Technical Team, and members of the Executive Water Task Force. One useful outcome from all of this would be a scoping document that reflects this comprehensive input and provides a responsible basis for moving forward on this front.

The State Engineer of Utah and Idaho’s comparable authority have been asked not to act on the filing by putting it out for public notification. At the very least, modeling the entire Bear River system, generating various scenarios from the modeling, incorporating those scenarios in the Great Salt Lake Integrated Water Model, and including the scoping results should be a prerequisite to going “public.” Once that public notification happens, there is a 2-week notification period followed by just a 20-day public comment period during which time protests can be filed with the State Engineer. Confusingly, protests can also be filed now – before the filing is public. The application can be reviewed at: Comments can be emailed to or mailed to Utah Division of Water Rights, 1594 West North Temple, Suite 220, P.O. Box 146300, Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-6300. All comments and protests should reference Water Right 23-3972.

On April 17th, the Bear River Commission met at the Department of Natural Resources to discuss public input that began a year ago as a part of a 20-yr review of the Bear River Compact. Article 14 in the Compact provides this unique review opportunity for the Commission to consider any reopening requests and/or amendments proposed through this process. If after extensive study and review the Commission agrees to support amending the Compact – a Herculean prospect to say the least that would take years – “amendments would require approval of all three states, ratification by their respective legislatures and approval by all three governors, as well as consent by Congress and approval by the President.

During this 20-year review process, 67 written comments were received. Five of them requested reopening and amending the Compact. As one of them, FRIENDS urged the Commission to recognize and incorporate a greater understanding of Great Salt Lake, its ecological significance and economic importance into the infrastructure of the Bear River Compact and management of Bear River. A telling remark from one of the Idaho Commissioners that made my jaw drop was that, although it was clear that there are values and concerns about Great Salt Lake that need to be addressed, it was Utah’s problem. The Commission passed a resolution not to amend the Compact. However, the Commission voted to refer a request to its technical committee to study a recommendation for some kind of mechanism or committee for environmental concerns that could be incorporated into the management considerations. This will be revisited at a future meeting. 

It’s been a year since FRIENDS and 40 other members of the State Water Strategy Advisory Team presented the July 2017 Recommended State Water Strategy to Governor Herbert. The Strategy is a timely and responsible outcome that is intended to begin laying the foundation for a necessary dialogue about water policy and collaborative decision-making for the second most arid state in the nation, one that continues to grow. 

Given what we know about the fate of the Bear River and how diversions and development will impact the Lake, we need to build collaborative partnerships and find solutions that will work. We don’t have the luxury of time. The Lake will not wait for us. Although the responsibility to sustain the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem in perpetuity falls squarely on the shoulders of the State, it’s up to us to make sure that happens. 


In saline, 



Why We Care

  • Great Salt Lake is a unique place in the Western Hemisphere because large concentrations of birds visit there… The disappearance of Great Salt Lake wetlands could mean the disappearance of whole species of birds.

    Gonzalo Castro, Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network