Spring 2013: Stop, Look, and Listen - Requiring a Standard Individual Permit for the Railroad Causeway Construction is the Right Thing to Do

“UPRR has stated that the proposed bridge is designed to maintain flows under “worse case” scenarios, yet this condition is impossible to define without context. The needs of mineral extraction, the brine shrimp industry, and the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem must all be considered before “worse” or best case scenarios can even be defined. UPRR has designed the bridge to mitigate flow, yet salt and mineral exchange is far more critical and this cannot be understood by the maintenance of flow alone.”

- The Utah Division of Water Quality in comments sent by the State to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the proposed railroad construction

Each year, the Great Salt Lake Technical Team generates a list of “hot topics” for Great Salt Lake research proposals. Funded by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands in the Department of Natural Resources, the research proposals are supposed to help the Division make “defensible” management decisions in support of maintaining the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem - in perpetuity - as a public trust for the people of Utah. (You can read more about the GSL Tech Team and hot topics at (http://www.ffsl.utah.gov/sovlands/greatsaltlake/gsltechteam.php)

The “hot topics” not only reflect the ecological complexities that comprise this unique and dynamic system, but identify imminent factors that could affect those dynamics. Factors with potential consequences that could impair this hemispherically important ecosystem that contributes $1.3B annually to the GDP of Utah. (I love that number).

Topics you would expect to see include, brine shrimp, water use and climate change, mercury, salinity balance, wildlife habitat, mineral extraction and phragmites. However, a welcome addition to the 2014 Hot Topics List just released by the GSL Tech Team is the “Potential causeway modification impacts.” A controversial project that involves the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Union Pacific Railroad, and Great Salt Lake. This proposal has gone through twists and turns since February 2011. And it has generated great concern from federal and state agencies, the brine shrimp and mineral industries, and FRIENDS because of impacts the reconstruction of the railroad causeway could have on the ecology of the Lake. (For more background about the project visit www.fogsl.org ).

The proposal was initiated in 2011 by Union Pacific because of a history of structural problems the railroad was experiencing with two existing 15’ wide culverts. The west and the east culverts provide bi-directional flows between Gunnison Bay (North Arm) and Gilbert Bay (South Arm) of the Lake. Subjected to constant freight loads and located in the deepest part of the Lake where background seismic activity occurs in the lakebed, the culverts were cracking and sinking. Despite efforts to repair them, the railroad requested a Nationwide Permit (NWP) from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to streamline the process to close the culverts. To mitigate for the loss of flow, the railroad proposed the construction of a 150’ bridge (which morphed into 180’) on the west side of the causeway near an existing breach where the Lake is more shallow.

If you didn’t know better, you might think that what the railroad is proposing to do to address the safety issue and restore the bi-directional flow sounds like a good idea. However, if you know anything about the Lake and the historic imprint the causeway has created both on the Lake’s surface and to its system, then you can understand why these stakeholders, and in fact all of us should be concerned. We should expect a thorough analysis and rationale for the location, the structure, and the monitoring and mitigation of this work before it can move forward.

Much like the Wicked Witch of the West said as she contemplated removing Dorothy’s ruby slippers, “ These things need to be done delicately.” We need to be sure that the dynamics and complexities of the ecosystem are accounted for. We need to be certain that other Lake uses aren’t jeopardized. And we need to be clear that the onus must be on the railroad to prove that any causeway modifications will do no harm to our public trust.

Among the written comments submitted by stakeholder interests to the Corps was a letter from a mineral extraction operation in the South Arm. It raised numerous questions about basic assumptions in the design documents that were a part of the pre-construction application process for a NWP. There wasn’t enough data to either prove or disprove the engineering assumptions that were being proposed. And the assumptions also seemed to suggest that the calculations were based on a finite point in time, and did not consider the ongoing dynamic system response of the Lake as it comes to equilibrium.

With a request for the Nationwide permit pending, the Corps weighed the collective input it received from the Union Pacific Railroad, the agencies, industry and FRIENDS. Using its discretionary authority it notified the railroad in a letter on March 15, 2012 that the work would require authorization under a Standard Individual Permit. This would cast a wider net of stakeholder involvement, improve the analysis of the project, and bring additional tools to the table that would include updating the U.S. Geological Survey Salt Balance Model. At the same time, the Corps would work with the railroad to develop options that would address the culvert issue.

Pushback from the railroad on the Corps’ decision led to a meeting in Sacramento with the District Regulatory Division that proved fruitful for Union Pacific. On August 29, 2012, the Corps reversed its decision, authorized a Nationwide Permit, and gave the railroad permission to close the west culvert asap. However, the railroad still needed to resolve differences with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands over an easement issue on sovereign lands. And it would need Corps approval of a Compensatory Mitigation and Monitoring Plan before the east culvert could be closed and the bridge construction begin. That’s one for Union Pacific – zero for the Corps.

The west culvert was closed on November 10, 2012. It required several dump trucks with fill and 60 cement trucks (570 yards of concrete) to plug it up. By Thanksgiving, Union Pacific was expected to submit its Draft Mitigation and Monitoring plan for review by the Corps but took an extension until January 4, 2013. Which brings us to where we are today.

Alas. After careful review of the draft Plan by the Corps and federal and state agencies, it appears that Union Pacific once again failed to get high marks for being thorough. Differences persist between the Corps and the railroad about the roles and responsibilities in the monitoring process and performance standards. There are different expectations about when monitoring should begin and how long the railroad is required to monitor to achieve success criteria. Real time water quality data to capture seasonal climatic and lake circulation patterns was not addressed. There was no mention of monitoring reports. And insufficient details in the adaptive management plan, bonding and reclamation plan put the dot on the “i “ in the word “inadequate”.

In short –things are right back where they started. Union Pacific has failed to work in earnest with the Corps to address agency and stakeholder concerns about potential impacts to the Lake and its water quality. And the railroad has still not resolved the easement issue with the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

Throughout this entire ordeal, state agencies, industry, FRIENDS and even EPA have advocated for a Standard Individual Permit to ensure that the project will not make matters worse for the Lake. Had the Corps stood its ground when it first asserted that such a permit would be required, we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in today. But wait! There’s more.

After much deliberation, the Corps realized that under the parameters of a Nationwide Permit it was not able to determine whether the proposed project would cause no more than minimal adverse effects to Great Salt Lake. As a consequence, once again invoking its discretionary authority, it notified Union Pacific in a letter (February 21, 2013) that the project will be processed through a Standard Individual Permit. The last I heard, the Corps and railroad will be meeting in mid April. On Tuesday, April 23, the Corps will provide a update to the Great Salt Lake Technical Team on the Union Pacific causeway application process. Keep your fingers crossed.

In saline,


What you can do: Be prepared to engage in a broader stakeholder process on this issue.


Why We Care

  • We should bill the lake for what it is—a place of grandeur and solitude, which nourishes our thoughts and heightens our sensitivity to nature. Seen in that light, the brine flies become a fascinating curiosity more than an annoyance. The Great Salt Lake offers a wilderness experience, not a beach party, and no amount of promotion and development will change that.

    Dean L. May, Images of the Great Salt Lake