Potash mining on the Colorado River

EcoFlight is a group that photographs ecological threats in western states from the vantage point of small airplanes. The idea is to give people a clear picture of the contrast between wilderness and the industrial sites that threaten the ecological health of that wilderness. It's an interesting idea, and certainly results in some amazing photos, such as this shot of evaporation ponds at a potash mining facility near Moab, Utah.

Potash is, essentially, a generic name for several different potassium-laden salts. It's most commonly used as an ingredient in fertilizer, as potassium (along with nitrogen and phosphorous) is one of the three key nutrients plants need to grow. The main environmental threat: How mining potash in the quantities required by the modern agricultural industry could threaten water quality and supplies, and soil quality. It's worth checking out the rest of the photos in the set, which give you a better perspective on where the evaporation ponds sit in context with the local landscape and the Colorado River.

This Potash mine is located 20 miles west of Moab. The mine began underground excavation in 1964 and was converted in 1970 to a solar evaporation system. This mine produces between 700 and 1,000 tons of potash per day.

Water is used from the nearby Colorado River in the production of Potash by a company called Intrepid Potash®. Water is pumped through injection wells into the underground mine which dissolves layers of potash more than 3,000 feet below the surface. The resulting "brine" is then brought to the surface and piped to 400 acres of shallow evaporation ponds. A blue dye is added to the ponds to assist in the evaporation process. These ponds are lined with vinyl to keep the brine from spilling back into the Colorado River. A major by-product of this process is salt. The salt is used for water softening, animal feed and oil drilling fluids as well as many other applications.

Via Martin LaMonica


  1. Wow, I wondered what those weird colored pools were. You can see them from some of the amazingly beautiful and fun mountain biking trails near town. Reminds me of this Psalm: 108:10  “Moab I will use for my washbowl, on Edom I will plant my shoe. Over the Philistines I will shout in triumph.”

  2. So they use the salt byproduct instead of dumping it somewhere? Sounds downright ecological to me.

    I take it the main risk is spillage? The same can be said of a lot of other industries.  The only way to guarantee that the river never gets polluted is to outsource the risk to another nation like China.

    I don’t recommend that myself, but it’s a perfectly legitimate point of view: better for other people to take big risks than for us to take smaller risks. We put a higher value on our environment than we do on theirs, and river pollution tends to be a local problem.

      1. I think what he’s saying is that since it’s not the most harmful thing in the universe, it has no impact on anything at all.

          1. Could you have replied to Rayonic with more than an eye roll?  Are the actual concerns that it’s ugly (arguable) and might leak, or is there something more substantial?  Using water from the Colorado seems like a bad idea generally at this point, but there should be some substance to the complaints.  How much water are they using, how long has this been there, what is the actual risk to the river?  The river has a lot of problems, but there’s no particular reason to believe that this is a significant one.

          2. I think he just read my first sentence about the salt byproduct being used. 

            Good point about the water usage, but I was just making a general comment about Environmental NIMBYism. 

            Short of banning it there’s always going to be a market for Potash. So where would we rather it come from — a country with environmental regulations or a 3rd world kleptocracy?

    1. Thanks Facet: 

      Here’s the Google maps short link~ http://g.co/maps/r9fcz

      Remember to grab Oscar, blue dots will appear on the map, those are spots where photos were taken, you can place Oscar on those spots to open the image. 

  3. While I’m sure this ecoflight group does some important work, I’m not sure a potash mine is the best example of it.  The process is broadly ecologically neutral.  They’re carting away all the salts they pull up from the ground, and what’s left?  Rocks and dirt?  It’s not exactly hydrofracking.

    Yes it takes up a lot of what could be natural space, but it is a desert after all.  The biomass displaced by the entire project probably wouldn’t outweigh that of a single acre of forest land.

    You might argue that this might not be the best usage for fresh water in an area that is already in short supply of the stuff, but at least the evaporation process returns it to the water cycle at least as clean as it entered – better than other industries that allow it to run off contaminated into waterways.

    Perhaps they should stick to things like tar sand processing.


    1. Indeed, it looks like their concerns are primarily aesthetic.

      Resource extraction isn’t always pretty… except in this case, it actually kind of is :)

      It doesn’t quite match the natural scenery, but there’s no shortage of that… it seems like they’ve decided to take issue with a mine that has one of the most benign land disturbance effects of any I’ve seen.

  4. So…what exactly is the issue? They seem to be using the waste product, they take care to make sure it can’t spill or leach back into the water supply, they have a technique to get at it that doesn’t require the full scale flaying of the land, and they dye it so you can  tell if its leaking and poluting…at least within that context it sounds like a pretty sane operation. What exactly is it that I am missing?

    1. I think their concerns are that:

      1) It changes the natural beauty of the land.
      2) It can still leak, even if it has ways of communicating that to us.

      1. 1) I would argue that the pools themselves are quite attractive, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of “natural landscape” in Utah.

        2) If it leaks, so what?  You’ve spilled a bunch of salt water onto land that is already pretty damn barren.  Not a lot lives out there, and what does still has millions of acres to wander around in.

  5. Those bastards! 

    Who’s responsible for that barren, dead-looking landscape encroaching so closely on those beautiful ponds????

  6. I get the same feeling from this that I did from Koyaaanisqatsi. The beauty of the image is at odds with the pollution.
    This is just one abuse of the river. The Colorado River used to flow all the way to the Sea of Cortez. There had been a marshland at the delta. But now, it’s usually dry because people just need their golf courses and their green lawns in a desert for some reason.

  7. Apparently the price of water is cheaper than the price to build a cover/greenhouse the brine and condense the vapor…

    It’d be very “green” if they could do that.  They would use probably 10% of what they do today.

  8. Thoughts are: Out of all the mining in the moab area they’re focusing on the fertilizer related industry and not the uranium mines? Really?

  9. It only looks like it’s surrounded by nothingness. That particular area of Utah’s desert does happen to have quite a bit more going on than is apparent at first glance. Much of the non-bare rock areas are covered in cryptobiotic soil, a symbiotic combination of bacteria, algae, mosses and fungi, among other things. It builds multitudes of small pillars in the dirt, and forms a hard crust that helps prevent erosion. “Desert” != “Lifeless”


  10. Weird that they focus on this operation… just down the river is a gigantic pile of radioactive waste that has been threatening the drinking water of millions for 50 plus years. Also the next time your buying your “organic” veggies remember this is where the “organic” fertilizer used to grow for them came from.  

  11. I snapped this image in July, 2010, on a commercial flight from Seattle, WA to Albuquerque, NM. I didn’t know what it was until now:


    To my untrained eye, and judging by the elevations apparent in Ecoflight’s gallery, it appears that there is runoff into the Colorado River (lower right of image).

    Though pretty, their images don’t really seem to portray the context that my accidental pic does.

    Given, it was taken from ~30,ooo’ or so.

  12. I’ve attached a couple of photos of the ponds taken on a family drive. Living in Moab, Utah the evaporation ponds are little more than curiosity viewed from Dead Horse Point State Park. The Ponds were made in the 1960s after an explosion and a cave in resulted in the death of 18 people. The Mine retooled it’s system to use the evaporation method in order to save both lives and energy as the evaporation process required less than the physical extraction process. Though the ponds are relatively close to the river they sit well above the river on a sand stone mesa below Dead Horse point.  The potash and the salts are both naturally occurring to the Moab Area and many of the washes surrounding the Colorado River show natural deposits of the material which during flash floods run into the Colorado River. The Bureau of Land Management uses desalinization efforts to remove much of this salt from the river before it travels further down stream. While I understand the concern regarding mineral extraction to indicate this is polluting or destroying the ecosystem of the Colorado Platueau and River Basin is an exageration. Dams on the Colorado and Water Pumping stations feeding Water hungry states like Arizona, Califorina, and Nevada would seem to do more harm to this river than a small salt mine that uses a minute fraction of the water compared to somewhere like the Belagio or the numerous Gulf Courses of the Southwest. I know it’s easy to rail against one company instead of changing way we live ourselves but please the Jobs provided by the Potash mine are one of the few stable venues of employment in our community.

    However if you’d like to discuss this more you should come and see the ponds for yourself. Moab is beautiful all year round and winter is a great time to escape the cold. Stop by our local history Museum I’ll give you a tour myself.

    T Schenck
    Curator Museum of Moab

  13. Surprised no one has yet made the obvious observation that…

    Colorado is quite literally trading its birthright for a mess of potash.

  14. http://g.co/maps/tgj68

    We have something like this not but a few miles from our home in West Monroe, LA. In all the years I grew up here I never knew they were there nor the size they were until I noticed them on google maps. They serve some use for a local paper mill. What was most surprising about the size is that if you look just less than a mile away is the Ouachita River that divides Monroe and West Monroe.

  15. The area downriver from Moab is exceptionally beautiful. Right near Potash there are many areas with pethroglyhps and great technical slot canyons. The evaporation ponds are a major blemish. A view from Hurrah Pass (the other side of the river) would have been wild and exceptional if not for these ponds. I would like to see them go.

    1. I agree the view from Hurrah pass would be more beautiful without the ponds. I also love the view from the Anticline Overlooks as well.

  16. …and I know it’s not a Xeni article (and Maggie rocks), but the photo could use a “shocked cat” face in the lower left corner..

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