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Living Rivers: Potash-Water Nexus Needs Attention

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Doc Searls
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Intrepid Potash operations along the Colorado River outside Moab stand out in the redrock landscaped. The environmental group Living Rivers things Utahns should be asking how potash and an healthy environmental can coexist.

A new report aims to spark statewide discussion about potash mining in Utah, and how it can coexist with a healthy environment.

John Weisheit, director of the Moab-based environmental group, Living Rivers, thinks potash should be part of Utah’s conversation about water. He says the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s master leasing program for the Moab area envisions more potash mining. So does Congressman Rob Bishop’s Public Lands Initiative.

“It doesn’t matter how much potash we have underneath us,” he says, “the issue is we don’t have any water to exploit this.”

Potash is a type of salt that’s a key ingredient in fertilizer, and lots of water is needed to produce it.

Weisheit says one example of the water-potash disconnect is a new mine proposal that would require three times more water than the city of Moab uses. Meanwhile, some forecasts suggest that the Colorado River could decline 30 percent in a few decades just as people and farms need more water.

Weisheit calls it a “conundrum.” “You have to realize what potassium salts are, and that’s farming,” he says. “Without fertilizer, we can’t feed the world.”

Living Rivers says the environment can be protected with careful zoning and best management practices. Weisheit’s group also advises strong reclamation and financial assurances so abandoned potash mines don’t mar the landscape.

“It needs to be part of the dialogue,” says Weisheit. “There’s big, huge decisions happening right now in the state of Utah.”

Those decisions include developing new water resources, like the Bear River Project in northern Utah. Last week state lawmakers removed wording in legislation that would have required all big water projects to undergo an economic and environmental review.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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