A group of environmental organizations filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, stating that Utah officials are responsible for the near collapse of the Great Salt Lake due to their decades-long diversion of upstream water for farming purposes, specifically for crops such as alfalfa and hay.
Conservationists are requesting legal intervention to compel the state to increase the amount of water flowing into the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River. This lake serves as a crucial habitat for millions of migrating birds, drives Utah’s billion-dollar mineral industry, and draws tourists.
According to the lawsuit, the consequences of a shrinking Great Salt Lake go beyond stranded boats and larger coastlines. They also encompass the extinction of species and the release of harmful dust clouds that could impact nearby communities.
In the summer of 2021, the lake reached its lowest level ever, causing Utah’s Republican-led Legislature to take notice once again. However, their efforts have not eased the worries of a group consisting of Earthjustice, the Utah Rivers Council, and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, among others.
“We are attempting to prevent a catastrophe. Our goal is to compel the state government to take significant measures,” stated Brian Moench from Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Emma Williams, a spokesperson for Utah Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. The Associated Press sent an email seeking comment to the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.
Joel Ferry, the leader of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, stated that he is unable to give a statement on the matter. However, he did mention that the state has been actively collaborating with numerous concerned groups regarding the lake.
State authorities have consistently prioritized the restoration of the lake. However, despite a brief increase in water levels this summer due to an unprecedented snowfall, the future of the lake remains grim. In an attempt to address this issue, Cox established and staffed the role of Great Salt Lake commissioner earlier this year.
The significant decline in water levels, leading to a 50% decrease in the size of the Great Salt Lake in recent decades, can be attributed to a dual issue. On one hand, climate change has played a role in diminishing the water supply from mountain streams that replenish the lake. On the other hand, the demand for these streams’ freshwater has greatly increased due to new development, agriculture, and industry.
The predicament has caused a divide in the Utah government, as they must balance meeting the demands for water from both businesses and citizens, while also ensuring the safety of the lake.
Environmental groups, such as Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity, argue that the negative effects of limiting water flow upstream are far outweighed by the consequences of the Great Salt Lake disappearing.
Harmful substances such as arsenic, lead, and mercury are contained within the lake’s bed. As the lake’s bed is exposed and dries out, these chemicals are dispersed into the air by the wind. This could result in toxic dust storms that could potentially decrease life expectancy and increase rates of cancer and infant mortality, as seen in other cases of lakes drying up globally.
The speaker expressed concern for the millions of people who will be directly affected by the hazardous dust. They may be forced to evacuate due to the potential public health effects caused by the creation of a new dust bowl.
Stu Gillespie, a senior lawyer at Earthjustice, who initiated the legal proceedings, stated that the state of Utah has a clear responsibility to protect the Great Salt Lake for the benefit of the general public, as outlined in its constitution. This duty is known as the public trust doctrine and was previously employed by the Supreme Court of California in the 1980s to preserve Mono Lake from shrinking due to water diversion to Los Angeles. The lawsuit references this doctrine.
According to Gillespie, despite the solution being identified in their own reports, Utah has not adequately safeguarded the lake. He believes it is crucial for a court to intervene in this matter.
However, according to Barton H. Thompson Jr., a professor of natural resources law at Stanford Law School, the majority of state supreme courts have either not addressed or dismissed the California court’s perspective.
According to Thompson, if the Utah state supreme court were to utilize it for safeguarding the water levels in the Great Salt Lake, it would have a substantial impact on a national level. He also stated that the lawsuit presents a credible argument, but its outcome is uncertain.
The lake serves as a vital source of water for countless birds making their way along the Pacific Flyway, a route that spans from the southernmost point of Chile to Alaska.
Deeda Seed from the Center for Biological Diversity stated that as the lake decreases in size, its salinity increases, posing a threat to the brine flies which serve as a vital food source for migrating birds like the Wilson’s phalarope. This shorebird breeds in North America and spends its winters near the Andes mountains.
According to Seed, the pelican colony on the Great Salt Lake has already suffered due to a decrease in water levels, which transformed its island into a peninsula and allowed coyotes to reach it.
She stated that bird types are in danger of disappearing and humans in the Wasatch Front are experiencing harmful dust occurrences. This is a critical situation that is not being addressed with the appropriate urgency.