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Great Salt Lake a sovereign entity 'worthy of legal rights,' group says

Posted at 4:59 PM, Sep 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-12 19:19:35-04

SALT LAKE CITY — An environmental group is pushing for the Great Salt Lake to be treated like a sovereign entity worthy of its own legal rights.

"We believe Great Salt Lake should have a right to flourish and exist as a living ecosystem," said Denise Cartwright, the founder of the group Save Our Great Salt Lake. "We would love for Great Salt Lake to be a part of the global rights of nature movement, which is asking us to stop viewing nature as property and viewing it as sovereign entities worthy of legal rights."

It's a new approach in law that Save Our Great Salt Lake believes would ensure a more thriving future for the lake. The global rights in nature movement puts natural resources and wildlife on the same legal footing as humans.

Cartwright acknowledged that it is a longer-term goal. Meanwhile, the group is rallying people and coordinating with other environmental groups to push for more action to save the Great Salt Lake at the Utah State Legislature.

"This ecosystem is collapsing and we are seeing it so clearly. We are seeing the dust blowing into the valley. It’s already affecting our lives," Cartwright said in an interview Monday with FOX 13 News.

Cartwright, who owns a skincare company in Salt Lake City, said the shrinking of the lake is alarming.

"I want to have children here. I want to have a future here. I have a company here. I’m concerned about our future and I’m seeing that more and more from people I’m speaking to," she said.

She is organizing events to talk about ways to save the lake, including events later this week and in October. Save Our Great Salt Lake recently participated in a "die-in" protest, where activists called attention to the plight of the lake.

The Great Salt Lake is at its lowest recorded level in history and continues to decline. Scientists and political leaders acknowledge the shrinking lake presents an environmental crisis for Utah with a dry lake bed creating toxic dust storms that can harm people's health, a reduced snowpack that impacts our water supply and significant impacts to wildlife.

Utah's political leaders have responded by funding a half-billion in water conservation measures, including $40 million specifically to get more water into the lake. Sen. Mitt Romney sponsored a bill to explore solutions from a federal level. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said more bills will be considered in the next legislative session with more funding.

Cartwright said it's not big enough.

"We need a response that matches this emergency. The time for baby steps was 20 years ago. We really want to push for dramatic action. This needs to be turned around right away," she said.

Save Our Great Salt Lake is drafting action items for the legislature to address, starting with permanent water rights for the lake.

"The Great Salt Lake needs around two million acre feet of water per year. We want to make sure that much water is permanently dedicated to the lake," said Cartwright.

Her group is also calling for an end to the Bear River Development Project, a controversial proposal to divert water for population growth in northern Utah. The Bear River is a major supplier of water to the Great Salt Lake.

"No more dams, diversions or development off of the Bear," Cartwright said.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake City Public Utilities continues to explore a unique way to get more water into the Great Lake. With the construction of its new wastewater treatment plant, the city is exploring "gifting" water to the lake permanently. Roughly 33 million gallons of water a day goes into Farmington Bay from indoor water use that goes down sewer connections and into the treatment plant.

But because Salt Lake City residents are becoming better at conserving, the water may not need to be reclaimed for future use as the population grows.

"What we’re seeing with conservation and all of this ethic around water is that we may not need to reuse that water for municipal and industrial purposes," Salt Lake City Public Utilities Director Laura Briefer recently told FOX 13 News. "Instead, we could take those water rights and commit those to Great Salt Lake levels. That is huge."

Briefer cautioned that they were still working on legal issues surrounding Utah water rights law to make it happen.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at