Point of Beginning

Mission: Impossible

July 20, 2011
Thwarted by mud. On the first day of the project, the surveyors were only able to get one point in the ground.


When Trent Keenan, PLS, WRS, CFedS, president of Diamondback Land Surveying based in Las Vegas, first heard about the project to survey Utah’s Sevier Lake bed for a potential mineral lease, he was excited. In fact, he was so excited that he couldn’t help calling the client, Rick Dye of Salt Lake City-based Emerald Peak Minerals LLC (EPM), more than a few times to convey his enthusiasm. “The project area covered 290 miles and required setting 467 monuments in seven townships,” Keenan says. “It was the largest project our firm had encountered, but it was in a flat, dry lake bed, so I figured the survey would be quick and easy. I told Rick it was about the best project any surveyor would want.”

Keenan’s persistence and passion helped win his firm the job. Little did he know how rapidly the site conditions would change.

Sevier Lake is a dry lake bed, or playa, located in western Utah’s Sevier Desert at the terminus of the Sevier River. During rare periods of unusually high runoff, the lake has held as much as 13 to 15 feet of water, and it is known to be muddy during late summer and early fall. However, a 1950s BLM survey deemed the playa to be upland, and most of the time it remains dry.

Located in a broad valley 10 to 15 miles wide, the playa has been shown to contain potassium-bearing saline brines, making the site a viable location from which to produce potassium and associated minerals collectively known as potash. From the 1970s through the early 1990s, these potash resources were explored and developed by Crystal Peak Minerals Corp. before the company’s lease expired. Other firms expressed an interest in leasing the playa for mineral development, but the BLM Utah State Office in Salt Lake City, which is charged with receiving and processing mineral leasing applications, had to complete an official survey before any new leases could be offered.

(from left): Verland Pierson, Jeff Miller, Jay Justice and Robert Carrington of Diamondback Land Surveying.

In the summer of 2009, BLM surveyors set 295 monuments in portions of 11 townships covering 328 miles around the outside of the basin. Lake bed conditions following one of the wettest springs on record caused BLM to delay portions of the project and schedule completion for the summer of 2010.

EPM, one of the primary firms interested in obtaining a mineral development lease in the Sevier Lake playa, didn’t want to wait. The company made a proposal: In an effort to expedite the surveys and leases, could EPM pay for and undertake completion of the unfinished monumentation work under the authority and direction of the BLM? The BLM agreed, and EPM issued a request for proposals.

Keenan heard about the project through Monsen Engineering, a Trimble dealer headquartered in Salt Lake City. After submitting his proposal, Keenan drove to Sevier Lake in late December 2009 and explored the project site along the outer edges. He thought he saw a few mirages in the distance, but that wasn’t surprising. After all, this was the desert.

The Sevier Lake bed is located in a valley 10 to 15 miles wide and is deemed to be upland.

When EPM awarded the survey to Diamondback Land Surveying in January 2010, Keenan was thrilled. But what he had seen in December weren’t mirages. Where the ground should have been dry and frozen, it was instead covered with a thin sheen of water. By the time the survey was set to begin in early February, unseasonable winter storms had transformed the desert landscape into a mud pit. “I thought we’d be able to do the survey in about two and a half to three weeks using a couple of ATVs,” Keenan says. “I didn’t expect all that water.”

The objective was to stake out 467 corners from coordinates provided by BLM Cadastral and take a GPS observation on every monument set in the ground. The surveyors were also required to take a picture of every aluminum cap to document the correct markings and fill out a corner monumentation worksheet for each corner.

Airboats were an excellent form of transportation in the “dry” lake bed. Pictured here is Diamondback Land Surveying’s Robert Carrington along with BLM’s Daniel Gillins and Utah Airboat’s Todd Bangerter.

At 6 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 8, seven surveyors from Diamondback Land Surveying arrived on the jobsite with all their gear, ready to head out as three crews. “We expected to be able to set 40 to 50 monuments per day, which would have been a decent pace but not unrealistic in dry conditions,” says Robert Carrington, the firm’s vice president. “Even despite the rain, we thought we would be able to do the outer edges and go in a couple of miles.”

A quarter mile in, the ATVs got stuck. The group left the ATVs in the mud and trudged on foot to the first monument, which was about a mile and a half from shore. The mud was knee deep in some places and thigh deep in others. By the time the surveyors had finished setting the first monument and following all of the required documentation procedures, it was already 10 a.m. “That was a frustrating moment,” Carrington admits. “Heads were hanging low, and we were all wondering what the alternatives were to setting the monuments so BLM could lease the land.”

The Diamondback crew with the helicopter pilot. From left: Doug Moreland, Roger Berriman, Robert Carrington, Jay Justice, Jeff Miller, Bruce Cummings, Trent Keenan and Verland Pierson.

There weren’t any. The surveyors had no choice--they had to find a way to set the monuments. Weary and covered from head to toe in mud, the crew decided to call it a day and return the next morning to dig out the ATVs. Keenan, an eternal optimist, tried to reassure the crew that conditions would improve. But it was a tough sell. “Most of us thought there was no way we were going to get the project done,” Carrington says.

Fortunately, EPM’s Rick Dye was a step ahead of them. A Salt Lake City native, Dye knew that conditions on the lake were highly variable, and he already had a backup plan in place. By 9:15 Monday morning, while the surveyors were struggling to get their first point in the ground, Dye was on the phone with Bruce Cummings, chief pilot for SkyPark Helicopters, who agreed to fly out the next day. Dye also notified Troy Thompson of Utah Airboat that his services might be needed.

By the time the Diamondback crew returned to the site on Tuesday, they knew a helicopter was on its way. Still, this information did little to raise their spirits. “We went out early Tuesday morning while it was still cold to get the quads out of the mud, but by 9 a.m., the lake bed was all mush again,” Keenan says. “It took us all day just to pull the quads out. Everyone was pretty discouraged.”

With the aide of the helicopter, two crews were able to set more than 60 monuments per day.

Everyone, that is, except Keenan. “He wouldn’t give up,” Carrington recalls. “He just said, ‘Let’s wait until the helicopter gets here, and we’ll reassess at that point.’ But he never even suggested we might not be able to complete the project. His optimism was crucial those first couple of days.”

The helicopter arrived Tuesday evening, and the crew agreed to fly out on Wednesday to evaluate the site by air. The flight confirmed that more than half the lake bed held some sort of water. Dye called in two airboats and learned that the earliest they could be there was on Friday evening. The surveyors decided to do as much as they could without the boats.

With the assistance of the helicopter, the crew was able to set 14 points later that afternoon. But it was still slow going. “We’d guide the helicopter to the points, which might be four or five miles from the edges, and we would step out of the helicopter and sink all the way down to our rear ends in mud,” Carrington says. “We still had to walk another 40 or 50 feet from the helicopter and try to survey, and then try to put a point in the ground, and then try to shoot the point again. And all we could see for miles around was water and mud. It was easy to start thinking, ‘I just want to get out of here.’”

The surveyors had to ensure that all of the caps carried the correct BLM stamp.

Instead, under Keenan’s direction, the crew made a detailed plan. Due to the weight restrictions of the helicopter, the surveyors knew they would only be able to carry a certain number of rods, tips and caps on each flight. They determined they would use two crews and set 24 points with each flight. The first crew would guide the helicopter to a point and would then get out with their rods, tips, driving rod, hammers, cap, GPS equipment and cameras. While that crew trudged out to set and document their corner, the helicopter would return to the base to take the other crew to the next point. Before each flight, Carrington and two other surveyors experienced in PLSS survey methods checked to ensure that all caps were properly stamped to avoid any wasted field time. “We developed a whole flight plan with the number of rods and caps and which points we had to set,” Carrington says. “After the first day, everything went smoothly because of our preplanning of every flight.”

On Thursday, the surveyors set 60 monuments. On Friday, they set 90. By Saturday, with two crews in the helicopter and a third crew in an airboat, the surveyors were able to set more than 100 points per day. A second airboat was used by the BLM for quality control/quality assurance checks.

Diamondback's Jeff Miller (front) and Roger Berriman (rear) give a thumbs-up sign from the helicopter as the survey nears completion.

corners had been set. Photos, field tablets, corner monumentation worksheets and GPS datasets were provided to the BLM a week and a half later. “We were in a situation that most surveyors have never had to deal with,” Carrington says. “Trent’s optimism and good communication between us and the client was crucial those first few days. And we all worked really hard, putting in more than 12 hours a day to get all those points in the ground. But ultimately the client and his willingness to get us whatever resources we needed made all the difference.”

In February 2011, after completing a comprehensive land use plan and addressing environmental concerns, the BLM approved a plan to allow leases for potash mining from the Sevier Lake bed. EPM was the successful bidder for a majority of the mineral leases. The mine is expected to contribute to local, regional and state economies by adding income and jobs and will also supplement the global supply of potash.

For Diamondback Land Surveying, the project was a memorable experience. “Sure, I’d survey a dry lake bed again,” Keenan says. He pauses, then grins. “I’d just make sure to bring waders next time.”