A letter on letterhead from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and signed by the regional environmental officer in Denver tells the Utah Department of Transportation something they didn't want to hear: their draft environmental impact statement for the West Davis Corridor has failed to fully consider the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.
"We continue to encourage UDOT to understand the irreplaceable value of the GSL ecosystem and to ensure that all impacts to this unique resource will be fully mitigated," the letter said as it outlined a number of concerns for impacts to wetlands surrounding Utah's inland sea.
"This is not a final decision and we are not expecting a final decision to be made until next year and that will be by the Federal Highway Administration," said UDOT spokesperson John Gleason, who said the state takes Interior's comments seriously.
The letter bolstered the spirits of a coalition of environmental and resident groups called "Shared Solution."
"The Great Salt Lake is a jewel and we should cherish it. It's an internationally important bird stopover and nesting area," said Steve Erickson of the Audubon Society and Shared Solution.
That assertion is confirmed by avian biologists who say the Great Salt Lake is a "Hemispheric Site" for shorebirds migrating through the Pacific and Central Flyways that go through the Western U.S. The only other site on both lists is Tierra Del Fuego on the south tip of Argentina.
But UDOT says the need in Davis County is real and growing. They point to a day in February when a police chase and shooting occurred on the same night as a fatal accident, closing I-15 and stranding commuters for hours.
"It took people hours to get home that night so there is a concern there especially over the next thirty years that will really intensify," Gleason said.
Shared Solution disputes the extent of the need: "Projections of the Wasatch Front Regional Council are that in 2040 this new highway would be underutilized by 50 percent even during peak rush hour times," said Erickson.
Shared Solution proposes a median lane on I-15 going south during morning rush and north in the evening. They also suggest a number of improvements to traffic along important east-west boulevards in Davis County.