The Great Salt Lake, a prominent treasure in the western United States, has long shone as an iconic gem. As the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth-largest terminal lake globally, it provides a home to millions of migratory birds and various other life forms while bolstering a range of industries, contributing billions of dollars to Utah’s economy.
This body of water receives its sustenance from numerous rivers and precipitation, but upstream diversions are wreaking havoc upon it. Water levels have fallen significantly, placing the lake on the brink of ecological collapse and endangering the well-being of the region’s inhabitants.
A recent legal action alleges that state officials have violated their trust responsibilities to the people of Utah by failing to take necessary and effective measures to address the crisis and safeguard the lake.
Zach Frankel, Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council, emphasizes, “The actions taken by Utah to address the issues at the Great Salt Lake have been woefully inadequate to preserve the largest wetland ecosystem in the American West. It is imperative that the state acknowledges the detrimental effects of upstream water diversions on the lake and its wildlife.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order compelling Utah’s leaders to implement substantial solutions that ensure an adequate water supply for the Great Salt Lake and its dependent wildlife and communities.
As reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, the complaint has been filed in the 3rd District Court and invokes the public trust doctrine, asserting that the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has failed in its duty to safeguard the largest saline ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere for the benefit of its residents.
The decreasing water levels expose sediments, raising the potential for fine particulates and toxic pollutants like arsenic, mercury, and other hazardous substances to reach nearby communities.
Dr. Brian Moench, President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, warns, “In other parts of the world where saline lakes have been allowed to dry up due to upstream diversions, the consequence has been public health disasters caused by relentless toxic dust clouds. Utah’s leaders prioritize these water diversions over the protection of their own people, necessitating intervention by the courts.”
Over the past three years, upstream diversions for agriculture, residential use, and industry have resulted in an annual water deficit of more than 1 million acre-feet, as noted in a press release from Earthjustice, the nonprofit organization representing the concerned groups. Consequently, the lake’s elevation has recently dropped below the threshold required for its continued viability.
“The Great Salt Lake is a public resource owned by the people of Utah, and the state bears a legal responsibility to safeguard it,” asserts Stu Gillespie, Senior Attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office. “However, the state has neglected this obligation and failed to respond to the crisis confronting the lake. Upstream water diversions imperil the lake’s biodiversity, industries reliant on the lake, and the health of the region’s residents. It is high time for Utah officials to address this issue and protect this invaluable public resource.”
Deeda Seed, Utah Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, stresses, “The survival of northern Utah’s entire population is contingent on the Great Salt Lake’s well-being, and I hope this lawsuit can help preserve it. Besides the millions of people residing here, numerous plants and animals depend on the lake, including 12 million birds from over 300 species. This region is unique because of them. The state of Utah’s complete abdication of its responsibility to protect the lake jeopardizes our ability to live in this magnificent area.”
Michael J. Parr, President of the American Bird Conservancy, underscores the global significance of the Great Salt Lake for bird species and the need for prudent water management decisions that consider both quantity and quality, balancing the requirements of birds, people, and local economies.
A variety of species heavily rely on the well-being of the Great Salt Lake, and the National Audubon Society points out that they will face severe challenges if the lake’s condition deteriorates further.
Polling conducted by Utah State University this year reveals that drought and the diminishing Great Salt Lake are the top two environmental concerns for residents. It is no surprise, as the lake is an integral part of Utah’s identity and a crucial resource for many migratory bird species. Its preservation is imperative to shield communities from the severe public health, economic, and environmental repercussions that would ensue from its collapse.