Sep 7, 2023 - News

Environmental groups sue Utah over Great Salt Lake's demise

Illustration of a highway sign reading Salt Lake City with the word Lake crossed out in spraypaint.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Five conservation nonprofits sued the state of Utah in an effort to protect the dwindling Great Salt Lake in what's being called "the most ambitious environmental lawsuit the state has ever seen."

Why it matters: Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment President and Co-founder Brian Moench, whose group is one of the plaintiffs, called the lake's demise an environmental threat with grave implications for residents statewide.

Details: The lawsuit, filed in state court on Wednesday, alleges the state has failed to protect and preserve the Great Salt Lake from water diversion under the public trust doctrine, which requires Utah to manage certain natural resources for the public.

  • Additional plaintiffs are the American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and the Utah Rivers Council. They are being represented by environmental law firm Earthjustice.
  • Utah's Department of Natural Resources, Division of Water Rights and the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands are named as defendants.

Context: The lake's water levels dropped to their lowest level on record last November, plunging to 4,188.5 feet above sea level, per the Utah Division of Water Resources.

  • The dwindling water levels are due to water diversion, a result of increasing consumption, agricultural use and ongoing drought.
  • A study released this year predicted that the Great Salt Lake is on track to collapse by 2027 unless water flow increases.

Zoom in: Plaintiffs are asking the court to require the state to restore the lake's water levels to 4,198 feet within a decade.

What they're saying: "We are very adamant in defending public health from environmental degradation and we felt that our hand was forced into taking this kind of an action," Moench said.

  • Moench said state lawmakers have not done enough to reverse the lake's decline.
  • Joel Ferry, who heads the Department of Natural Resources, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said there's been "unprecedented interest, investment and action" to preserve the lake.

Catch up quick: Last year, the state Legislature passed a $40 million watershed bill intended to help with efforts to save the Great Salt Lake.

  • Gov. Spencer Cox appointed a commissioner this year tasked with creating a plan to preserve the lake.

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