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Potash Project at Sevier Lake

Viewed from the top of Frisco Peak, Sevier Lake stretches into the distance.
Dan Bammes
Viewed from the top of Frisco Peak, Sevier Lake stretches into the distance.

By Dan Bammes

Salt Lake City, UT – Sevier Lake is the end point of the Sevier River, located about thirty miles southeast of Delta. It's dry most of the time because almost all the water in the river is used for irrigation upstream. Its white surface is mostly salt, but it also contains other minerals - notably potassium sulfate or potash. It's a natural fertilizer, currently selling for about five hundred dollars a ton. That's why Emerald Peak Mining has leased the entire lake surface, 127,000 acres, from the Bureau of Land Management and the state of Utah. It has yet to decide whether it will begin a full-scale operation to extract the potash - and in the meantime, it's run into opposition from environmentalists who say the lake is best left alone.

Jeff Gentry is a geologist and the company's executive vice-president. He explains the process for extracting potash.

"You would have a series of canals or different things that go down to the water table, which is approximately 2-1/2 or 3 feet below the surface," he says. "You would bring the water into the canals. You would put it in ponds, low-dike ponds and let the sun evaporate it. And you would sequentially pond it. As the water evaporates in the pond, the mineral content goes up. And at the end, you scrape that up and put it through your mill.

While it sounds simple, it's taken years of effort and millions of dollars so far, and nothing's been produced yet. In 2009, when the project was just getting started, it ran into the Obama administration's "Wild Lands" policy. That would have allowed the Bureau of Land Management to designate additional areas of public land to protect wilderness values. Steve Bloch with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance says they asked the B-L-M to assess its potential under the federal standard. "They recognized that it's extremely remote," he says. "It offers solitude. It offers uninterrupted vistas. There are a number of these dry lakebeds around the West in California and in Oregon that have been protected by the BLM for their wilderness values."

The policy all but stopped Emerald Peak in its tracks. Governor Gary Herbert, Senator Orrin Hatch and Congressman Rob Bishop reacted with outrage and asked the BLM to expedite its review of the lake. BLM State Director Juan Palma says past prospecting efforts at the lake left a lot behind and that made wild land designation inappropriate. "We felt that because of all the human activities, infrastructure, roads and other things, those lands did not qualify for lands with wilderness character at the time."

BLM went ahead and issued leases to Emerald Peak for the entire lakebed in April of last year.

Getting enough water to produce potash from the lakebed sediment is another challenge. Emerald Peak has applied for rights to more than 400,000 acre-feet of mostly brackish water from the lake surface and shallow wells. But it would also need enough fresh water to irrigate six hundred acres of alfalfa, about 1500 acre-feet. Emerald Peak's applications for water rights have become a new target for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Steve Bloch points out that both the BLM and Millard County have filed protests of the water rights applications. "Much of the surrounding area is used either for field agriculture or for grazing and the impacts of the drawdown here would be similar to what people are concerned about happening from the Snake Valley water drawdown, which is the loss of shallow aquifers and the desertification of the area, the drying out of the area."

But Millard County Commissioner Daron Smith says the county's protest of the water rights applications doesn't mean the county opposes the project. He says that gives the county a seat at the table and allows it to protect its interests. "That's not necessarily meaning that we oppose the project. It's just that water is very important to us and we want to make sure that the water resource is being used beneficially and doesn't impact any of the other water rights."

In fact, Smith says Millard County strongly supports the project, which could result in as many as 200 jobs over its lifetime. Just how long that might be is still the subject of some study. Emerald Peak CEO Lance D'Ambrosio says the company still has to determine whether it's economically viable.

He says it's been a three-year process just to get an environmental assessment and issue leases on the land. Now, he says, "We're in the process of doing this economic and resource analysis From there it's about a four to five year time horizon to production."

If the water rights applications are granted and Emerald Peak does decide the project is profitable, there isn't much in the way of their moving ahead. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has protested their drilling in the lake to determine how extensive the potash resource is, but the drilling is still going on.

That disappoints SUWA's Steve Bloch, who argues Sevier Lake deserves protection for its own intrinsic value. "I think it's representative of what Utahns think of when they think of the West Desert. It's remote. It's isolated. It offers this solitude. You don't see a significant imprint of human development. And, again, what is being proposed here would be a radical change. It would be the diking and berming and construction of these solar ponds. You'd have much more human traffic in the area and we would all be a little bit poorer for this development."

For Commissioner Deron Smith, the issue boils down to jobs and opportunity in Millard County. "One of the greatest resources that we export is our children," says Smith. "We would love to have more opportunity for them to stay at home. We feel we have a great quality of life. Most folks who lived here and had to move away to make a living, if they had the opportunity to move back, they would in a heartbeat."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management review of the leases and the mineral potential of Sevier Lake

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