Lake Oquirrh (OU7) and the waters of forgetfulness
01.25.2010, 12:30 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Oquirrh Lake, image: Brett Neilson

“Following dream waters upstream, the historian will learn to distinguish the vast register of their voices. As his ear is attuned to the music of deep waters, he will hear a discordant sound that is foreign to waters, that reverberates through the plumbing of modern cities. He will recognize that the H20 which gurgles through [the] plumbing is not water, but a stuff which industrial society creates. He will realize that the twentieth century has transmogrified water into a fluid with which archetypal waters cannot be mixed.”
-Ivan Illich, H20 and the Waters of Forgetfulness

Yesterday we cited Lucy Raven’s piece (from Triple Canopy Issue 7) on the 93,000 acre suburban development in Utah called Daybreak–part of Kennecott Copper’s attempt to both diversify its corporate activities and redress its legacy of environmental pollution on the edge of Salt Lake City.

FOP visited the development’s prized amenity, a new artificial lake named Oquirrh Lake, when we were on a research trip last summer.  Both Daybreak and Oquirrh Lake are sited on the dry lake bed of ancient Lake Bonneville.

Two things intrigue us about Oquirrh Lake:  how its “fresh” waters got there, and, as Illich writes, in what sense might we consider this artificial lake to be made up of what humans call “water.”

If we were to join Illich in following the dream waters of Oquirrh Lake upstream, we’d find two streams to follow.

One would lead to the source of its life today:  Utah Lake, one of the last remnants of Lake Bonneville. The other would lead up to the Bingham Copper Pit.

Utah Lake, image: ATIS547 (creative commons)

Stream One: Utah Lake, also known as Timpanogos.  One of the largest fresh water lakes in the Western United States, fed by the Provo, Spanish Fork and American Fork Rivers.  It flows out to the Great Salt Lake.  It is one of two living remnants of Lake Bonneville (three when Lake Sevier occasionally returns during wet years).  It’s an ancient lake, a former source of what Illich would call archetypal waters.  Utah Lake’s age and geologic story give it a significance that in some places, such as Lake Titicaca or the Dead Sea, is considered sacred.

Google Map of Utah Lake (lower right), Great Salt Lake (upper left), Bonneville Salt Flats (far left)

However, today Utah Lake’s waters bare a closer resemblance to Illich’s “transmogrified waters” — the “stuff which industrial society creates.” It has become a “man made” lake, kept alive today by artificial means–dammed in ways that keep it from evaporating.  The compromised waters from Utah Lake (there was a PCP advisory in 2006) are now being pumped north through canals to fill artificial Oquirrh Lake under water rights that Kennecott has long used for its mining operations.

Pre-Daybreak Evaporation Ponds, site of 50 years of seepage. Environmental Protection Agency image EPA/ROD/R08-01/518

Stream Two: Oquirrh Lake has also had multiple names–one given by Kennecott:  The South Jordon Evaporation Ponds. And another given by the Environmental Protection Agency:  OU7 (“operable unit 7”).

EPA superfund schematic meets Google Maps at the Evaporation Ponds of South Jordon, UT

Oquirrh Lake’s site is a ghostly palmpsest of the evaporation ponds that collected downstream from the copper mine.   Starting in 1936, the ponds were:

“used to store, evaporate, and dispose of excess waters originating from Bingham Canyon mining operations. Because the ponds were built on a former Lake Bonneville delta, the waters soaked into the ground and some of it reappeared in seeps along the face of the delta. Two new ponds (Eastside Seepage Collection Pond and Southside Seepage Collection Pond) had to be constructed there to collect the water.”  EPA superfund record of decision, EPA/ROD/R08-01/518, 2001, pg. 28

In recent years, Kennecott Land cleaned up the evaporation ponds to satisfy the EPA.  It removed elevated metals, tailings and acid-generating waste rock from the area.  They were placed in repositories and waste rock disposal areas. Pond sediments also were excavated and placed in a 200-acre on-site repository, which was designed to accommodate a future transportation corridor. For the project, about 7.9 million cubic yards of waste were moved.  Kennecott’s clean up satisfied the EPA, which then determined that no further action was needed or required “because the wastes remaining on site contain only low levels of lead and arsenic.” (EPA/ROD/R08-01/518, 2001)

Lake Oquirrh meets OU7

A mutated Pleistocene lake now grows at the former site of the evaporation ponds.  It is lined with a 65 acre sheath of thick High Density Polyethelene (HDPE) designed to block seepage in both directions. A Kennecott document describes the artificial lake:

“Nearly 35 million cubic feet of earth will be excavated for construction of the lake.  Excavated earth is used for construction in other areas of Daybreak … Water flows over the dam as an aesthetic waterfall feature into a reflection pool. A computerized lake management system monitors and controls water treatment equipment, regulates the level of the water and controls the aeration system ensuring water purity.  All of these elements have been devised to assist plant and animal life that live in the lake.”

And Deseret News reports:

“Waterfalls and a reflection pool will act as an aesthetic way to control the water level. And water pumped from the canals will be diverted into natural streams that will fill the lake. But those streams won’t provide enough circulation to keep the water from becoming stagnant and dirty. So at points throughout the lake’s bottom, small purple aeration systems, much like the systems used in fish aquariums in homes, will filter, circulate and clean the water based on a computerized monitoring system.”

The making of Oquirrh Lake, from its Utah Lake waters to its bathtub-like protection from the former Evaporation Ponds, “has transmogrified water into a fluid with which archetypal waters cannot be mixed.” Still, Daybreak’s public relations brochure encourages residents to dream of archetypal waters–nothing but pure H2O–at the shores of Lake Oquirrh:

“There aren’t many places where you can say:  ‘Let’s walk to the neighborhood lake.’  All 65 acres of Oquirrh Lake are complete. It’s surrounded by trails, parks, and open space. Stocked with more than 200,000 fish.  It has free kayak, canoe and sailboat rentals for residents. And eventually it will be a recreational area bigger than Sugarhouse Park.”  Explore Daybreak

The dream waters of Lake Oquirrh (Google Maps)

Unfortunately, any confusion between the “music of deep waters” and “what reverberates through the plumbing of modern cities” ended last summer when the water of artificial Oquirrh Lake was found to contain the rare parasite: roundworm.  The illnesses of three residents of South Jordon caused the closing of Oquirrh’s swimming beaches and the cancellation of the Lake’s use for a triathlon.

The waters of Utah Lake have mixed with the human efforts, desires, and dreams that created Oquirrh Lake.  The archetypal waters of Lake Bonneville’s remnant have left the Pleistocene and entered the Anthropocene.

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[…] geologic timescale. But concentrations of it are found in rock formations in places such as the Oquirrh Mountains in Utah, site of one of the world’s largest copper mines (to learn about the elaborate […]

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