In the magnificent landscape of the western United States, the Great Salt Lake has long been a cherished gem. As the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth-largest terminal lake globally, it plays a crucial role in supporting millions of migratory birds and various organisms while contributing significantly to Utah’s economy, generating billions of dollars.
However, the lake’s very existence is now threatened by dwindling water levels, primarily due to upstream water diversions. These diversions have reached a point where they could lead to an ecological catastrophe and have severe consequences for public health in the region.
A recent lawsuit alleges that state officials have neglected their duty to the people of Utah by failing to address this crisis and protect the Great Salt Lake adequately.
Zach Frankel, the Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council, emphasizes, “Utah’s current efforts to address the Great Salt Lake’s issues are grossly insufficient to sustain the American West’s largest wetland ecosystem. We demand that the state acknowledges the adverse impact of upstream water diversions on the lake and its wildlife.”
This legal action aims to compel Utah’s leaders to take meaningful steps to secure a sufficient water supply for the Great Salt Lake, crucial for both wildlife and the local population.
As reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, the lawsuit is rooted in the public trust doctrine and alleges that the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has failed in its responsibility to protect this vast saline ecosystem for the well-being of its residents.
The dwindling water levels have exposed sediments, raising the risk of fine particulates and toxic pollutants like arsenic, mercury, and other harmful substances affecting nearby communities.
Dr. Brian Moench, President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, warns, “Throughout the world, when saline lakes have been allowed to shrink due to upstream diversions, it has resulted in public health disasters caused by relentless toxic dust. Utah’s leaders must prioritize the well-being of their people over these water diversions, and the courts must step in.”
Over the last three years, upstream diversions for agriculture, residences, and industry have caused an annual water deficit exceeding 1 million acre-feet, a situation highlighted by Earthjustice, the non-profit representing the concerned groups. Consequently, the lake’s water level has fallen below a critical point for its sustainability.
Stu Gillespie, Senior Attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office, stresses, “The Great Salt Lake is a public resource, and the state has a legal obligation to safeguard it. However, the state has neglected this responsibility and failed to address the lake’s crisis. Upstream water diversions jeopardize the lake’s biodiversity, industries reliant on it, and public health in the region. It’s time for Utah officials to take action and protect this invaluable resource.”
Deeda Seed, Utah Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, echoes the sentiment, emphasizing the importance of the Great Salt Lake for both the region’s population and its unique ecosystem. “The state of Utah’s disregard for its duty to protect the lake jeopardizes our ability to thrive in this spectacular area.”
Michael J. Parr, President of American Bird Conservancy, underscores the global significance of the Great Salt Lake, particularly for bird species. “We cannot afford to let this vital body of water turn into dust. Water management decisions must prioritize both quantity and quality while considering the needs of birds, people, and local economies.”
Maria Archibald, Lands and Water Programs Senior Coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Utah Chapter, expresses the frustration of many Utahns, saying, “Utahns want to see the Great Salt Lake protected. Unfortunately, our state leaders have repeatedly demonstrated that they aren’t interested in taking meaningful action to address this urgent issue.”
She emphasizes the critical role the lake plays in Utah’s identity, underlining the severe consequences that its collapse would have on public health, the economy, and the environment.