Lawsuit: Utah Is Letting the Great Salt Lake Die

It's shrinking rapidly, threatening humans and wildlife alike, environmental groups say
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 6, 2023 12:40 PM CDT
Lawsuit: Utah's Policies Are Killing the Great Salt Lake
A young person runs through the Great Salt Lake on June 15, 2023, near Magna, Utah.   (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Utah state government officials have pushed the Great Salt Lake to the brink of an ecological collapse by allowing upstream water to be diverted away from the lake and primarily to farmers growing alfalfa, hay, and other crops for decades, says a new lawsuit filed Wednesday by a coalition of environmental groups. The lake first hit a record low in the summer of 2021, fueling renewed attention from Utah's Republican-led Legislature. But lawmakers' actions have not been enough to assuage the concerns of a coalition that includes Earthjustice, the Utah Rivers Council, and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, among others, the AP reports.

They want a court to step in and force the state to let more water reach the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, which is an oasis for millions of migratory birds, an engine for Utah's billion-dollar mineral industry, and a tourist attraction. "We are trying to avert disaster. We are trying to force the hand of state government to take serious action," said Brian Moench of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. State officials have repeatedly identified restoring the lake as a top priority. But despite a temporary rise in lake levels this summer after a record winter snowfall, the lake's long-term outlook is bleak.

  • The precipitous drop in water levels, which has shrunk the Great Salt Lake's footprint by half in the last decades, stems from a two-fold problem: Climate change has decimated the mountain streams that feed the lake, while demand for that same freshwater has ballooned for new development, agriculture, and industry. It has put the Utah government in a bind, pulled between meeting the water needs of businesses and citizens and keeping the lake at a safe level.

  • The risks of a diminished Great Salt Lake aren't merely beached sailboats and wider beaches. It threatens species extinction and toxic dust clouds ballooning over nearby communities, the lawsuit says. The organizations suing the state say the effect of rationing freshwater upstream pales in comparison to that of a disappearing Great Salt Lake.
  • Toxic chemicals—including arsenic, lead, and mercury—are trapped on the lakebed. As more of it becomes exposed and dries, chemicals become exposed to the whims of the wind. The consequent toxic dust storms could lower life expectancies, as well as heighten cancer and infant mortality rates, said Moench, citing past instances of lakes drying up across the world.
  • The lake is a watering hole for millions of birds traversing the Pacific Flyway—a migratory path from the southern tip of Chile to Alaska. As the lake shrinks, it becomes saltier, threatening the brine flies that are a key source of food for migrating birds, said Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity. In turn, birds like the Wilson's phalarope—a shorebird that breeds in North America and winters near the Andes mountains—will struggle to find enough nutrients.
  • Already, a pelican colony on a Great Salt Lake island has floundered after their island became a peninsula, letting in coyotes, Seed says. "Bird species are facing extinction. Humans along the Wasatch Front are facing toxic dust events. It's an emergency—and it's not being dealt with like it's an emergency," she said.
(More Great Salt Lake stories.)

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