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Lawsuit filed against Utah demanding action to save the Great Salt Lake

Posted at 9:39 AM, Sep 06, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah, accusing political leaders and agencies of not doing enough to save the Great Salt Lake.

The lawsuit seeks a court order to force the state to take more drastic measures to reverse the lake's declines by addressing upstream water diversions. It says the state, which is supposed to protect the Great Salt Lake under the public trust doctrine of the Utah Constitution, has failed to take any concrete measures to address ways to modify or even review water diversions with the goal of getting water into the lake.

"The state has to be proactive about making sure the trust asset — in this case the lake — is protected and preserved for the people of the state of Utah. It's a mandatory duty that comes out of the constitution and out of a long line of case law. So far, the state has not lived up to its legal obligations. You can see that by looking west over the lake and really see what's happening there," said Heidi McIntosh, an attorney with the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, which is representing the environmental groups.

The Great Salt Lake dropped to its lowest level in recorded history last year as a result of water diversion, drought and climate change. It rose 5 1/2 feet this year as a result of a record-breaking snowpack in northern Utah, but has begun shrinking again. A dried up lake bed presents an ecological and economic catastrophe for the state with toxic dust storms from an exposed lake bed (arsenic is a naturally occurring mineral in the lake) blowing into populated areas; reduced snowpack in the mountains that feeds Utah's water supply; impacts to millions of migratory birds that rely on the lake; and billions in economic harm.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Utah Rivers Council and American Bird Conservancy against Utah's Department of Natural Resources and two of its divisions: the Division of Water Rights and the Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources did not immediately have a comment on the lawsuit when contacted by FOX 13 News on Wednesday. Governor Spencer Cox's office — of which DNR is a part of his cabinet — declined to comment on the litigation.

"There has been unprecedented interest, investment and action to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake in recent years. The state has been actively working with many interested parties on the lake. Working together, we have found more productive ways to effect change. Because we are now a party to this lawsuit, we are unable to comment on the specifics of the suit. However, we invite all to work with us in finding meaningful ways to benefit the lake, its ecosystem and surrounding communities," Utah DNR Executive Director Joel Ferry said in a statement to FOX 13 News late Wednesday.

Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity told FOX 13 News the lawsuit came out of frustration with the Utah State Legislature earlier this year. While lawmakers have passed a series of bills and allocated $1 billion toward water conservation, Seed argued that lawmakers instead leaned on a record-breaking winter to help prop up the lake instead of taking more assertive action.

"They're the people that we pay to keep us safe. And right now, the situation with Great Salt Lake is making us unsafe. It is a human health hazard to have that lake dry up as is happening right now," she said.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, defended the leigslature's actions in a statement to FOX 13 News.

"We have passed groundbreaking legislation which has elevated the discussion of the lake to a level unthinkable even a decade ago and have invested over $1 billion dollars in water conservation measures aimed at getting more water to the lake. We have a responsibility to the public to protect and conserve our state’s natural resources, but effectively managing a resource like the Great Salt Lake is a delicate balance. We will continue to ensure the health of the lake is a priority for policymakers as we work toward actionable solutions which also recognize the existing rights of all water users," he said.

The legislature created a $40 million trust, managed by the Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy, with the goal of getting water into the lake. However, Seed said she hasn't seen any water procured aside from a donation by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"You hear people talk about it, but what really matters is water into the lake," Seed said.

The lawsuit asks a judge to force the state to cease future declines to lake levels within two years and to meet a minimum threshold for a healthy lake — 4,198 feet — within 10 years. The litigation also has the potential to trigger a volatile fight when it comes to water rights exercised by agriculture producers that dates back to the founding of statehood.

The legislature this year did create a special Great Salt Lake Commissioner position who is in the process of coming up with a plan to reverse the lake's declines. In a recent interview with FOX 13 News, Commissioner Brian Steed warned of "tough choices" facing Utah when it comes to saving the lake.

"While these are tough choices, these are tough times and Utahns overwhelmingly are worried about drought, they're worried about climate change, they're worried about the billion dollars in revenue the lake generates from brine shrimping to other industries and the consequences of not acting are just really almost too great to contemplate," McIntosh told FOX 13 News.

Read the lawsuit here:

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 greatsaltlakenews.org.