The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Wendover Report

Crew gearing up for a voyage on the Great Salt Lake Exploration Platform, where for months last year the GSLEP was the sole vessel using the drying-up marina at Antelope Island.
Crew gearing up for a voyage on the Great Salt Lake Exploration Platform, where for months last year the GSLEP was the sole vessel using the drying-up marina at Antelope Island. CLUI photo

WITH A FOCUS ON THE Great Salt Lake this year, researchers in residence were based out of the CLUI Complex at Wendover, Utah but spent most of their time out in the field, around the lake.

These included landscape architects Karen Lutsky and Sean Burkholder, from the University of Buffalo, School of Architecture and Planning, who made studies of the littoral and liminal zones of the Great Salt Lake, building on similar work they have done on the Great Lakes, but with a pinch or two of salt; Zach Moser, who for years has worked on a creative investigation of the shrimp industry in the Gulf of Mexico known as Shrimp Boat Projects, and who is investigating the brine shrimp industry of the Great Salt Lake; Michael Page, a geographer from Emory University Center for Digital Scholarship in Atlanta, who is making detailed aerial renderings of the lake’s expanding shores; and Hans Baumann, an architect and artist based in Los Angeles, who is working on a study of microbialites, a form of biologic rock found in the Great Salt Lake.

Several other previous resident researchers visited the CLUI Wendover complex in 2016, including Marie Lorenz, who continues to explore the aqueous canals of the region, and Pat Kikut, from the University of Wyoming, who was part of a residence team a few years ago, but who continues to do work in the region.

Class visits included a group of History of Science graduate students and teachers from Harvard, studying “technical lands” and 11 graduate students in art, art history, and architecture from MIT on a long Landscape Experience Field Trip around the southwest.

2017 will continue with the emphasis on the phenomenology of the Great Salt Lake as an engineered product and byproduct, though the research program remains open for other projects around Wendover.

This winter saw a remarkable moment when the Lucin Cut-off, a causeway that acts as a dam separating the lake in two parts, was intentionally breached, allowing for flow between the north and south halves of the lake for the first time in decades.

The causeway, once made of wooden trestles which enabled the lake to flow underneath it, was filled in with gravel in the 1950s and 1960s, creating a dam that divided the lake in two. Though there were some openings, they were small, and ineffective.

Over the past fifty years, with less fresh water coming into it from runoff and rivers than its southern half, the north half became saltier and saltier, and drier and drier. Its levels sank a few feet lower than the southern half of the lake. The brine shrimp industry was harmed, the chemical industries were left without a source of water for their evaporation ponds, and the safe island rookeries for pelicans were now connected to the land. Spiral Jetty was left high and dry.

The breaching of the causeway occurred on December 1, 2016, when excavators made a small cut in the dam underneath the new bridge that supported the tracks over the anticipated channel. Water began immediately breaking down the dam, and flowing into the north half of the lake. Eventually the north half might be 1.5 feet higher, and the south half 1.5 feet lower. How long this will take and what the long term effects will be to the salinity—which is at full-saturation of salt on the north half—is unknown.  

Another significant breaching and flooding event also occurred in the region over the winter, though this one was unintentional. During a period of high temperatures, rain, and snowmelt in February, the Twentyone Mile Dam, 35 miles upstream of Lucin, broke. Its contents flowed down the valley, taking out miles of state highway and railway, and flooding Montello, the only community in this remote corner of northern Nevada/Utah. The flood pushed down through Grouse Creek, and took out some more roads and railroads, north of Sun Tunnels, Nancy Holt’s sculpture near Lucin, then fanned out on the fringe of the Bonneville Basin.

These two flood events, one intentional and one not, but both engendered by human activity, show how dynamic and vast the anthropogenic landscape is in this region—one reason why it’s so interesting out here around Wendover. ♦ 

aerial view of Great Salt Lake causeway
The south half of the lake, three feet higher than the north half, flowing through the new breach in the causeway. CLUI Photo by Hikmet Sidney Loe