Why we are suing to protect Great Salt Lake
National and international news outlets have been covering the issues related to declining water levels in Great Salt Lake, emphasizing the looming consequences for residents and the ecology of the area. While the importance and urgency of the lake’s condition is overwhelmingly clear to the masses, the state of Utah has failed to act as so.
UPHE’s recent litigation targets the state of Utah for its failure to ensure that enough water reaches the Great Salt Lake to prevent ecological collapse.
Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and an iconic American ecosystem. It provides habitat for millions of migratory birds and supports a variety of industries that contribute billions of dollars to Utah’s economy. But the lake is facing ecological collapse because of Utah’s failure to ensure that enough water reaches the lake to sustain this vital resource.
“According to the complaint, officials have continued to allow around 74% of upstream water to be diverted to farmers to irrigate alfalfa, hay and other crops, with a small part of the water being used for lawns and other decorative plants,” a CNN article reported on the suit.
The state holds the Great Salt Lake in trust for the public. As trustee, the state has a fiduciary obligation to protect the lake. That includes modifying upstream diversions when necessary to ensure that enough flows reach the lake to sustain its minimum viable elevation of 4,198 feet. Given that obligation, the state must reconsider existing diversions and modify those that are impairing the trust.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports the south arm currently sits at 4,192.4 feet and the north arm sits at 4,189.0 feet. The Great Salt Lake’s record low, set last fall, is 4,188.5 feet.
Quotes and coverage on the lawsuit:
In other parts of the world, where saline lakes have been allowed to shrivel up because of upstream diversions like those happening at the Great Salt Lake, the end result has been public health disasters from the clouds of relentless toxic dust,” said UPHE President Dr. BrianABC4
Toxic chemicals — including arsenic, lead and mercury — are trapped in the lakebed. As more of the lakebed becomes exposed and dries, those chemicals are carried into the air by 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.Associated Press
“You have millions of people directly in the path of the toxic dust,” he said. “We will be forced to leave, (and) it would be because of the public health consequences of the newly created dust bowl.
According to the lawsuit, Utah has breached its public trust obligations to Utahans by failing to take necessary action to protect the lake. The lake’s viability depends primarily on inflows of water from upstream runoff, but the state hasn’t reviewed or modified upstream water diversions which have lead to the current crisis, the suit says.Bloomberg Law
Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment sued as lead plaintiff in September, claiming that Utah has failed to take necessary action to save the lake—which has already shrunk by two-thirds and could poison the air around Salt Lake City if it continues to dry up. Scientists say that it will be gone in five years without substantial policy changes.Bloomberg Law
“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.Cache Valley Daily
According to the complaint, officials have continued to allow around 74% of upstream water to be diverted to farmers to irrigate alfalfa, hay and other crops, with a small part of the water being used for lawns and other decorative plantsCNN
Utah’s leaders are prioritizing these water diversions over protecting their own people, so the courts must interveneDeseret News
The Strike Team report recommended various options to refill the lake, each of which included various cuts of at least 20 percent to industries including agriculture, mineral extraction and municipal and industrial use.E&E News
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.Fox13
“Wherever you have an environmental nightmare, if you look hard enough or wait long enough, you’re going to have a public health nightmare,” Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, one of the plaintiff groups in the case, told Grist. “And that’s exactly what we fear.”Grist
Salt Lake City is already ranked among the worst cities in the U.S. for air quality. The region suffers from what Moench calls the “four horsemen of the airpocalypse”: winter inversions, summer ozone, wildfire smoke and now, exposed lakebed sediment.High Country News
High Country News“The outcomes are everything from shortened life expectancies to sudden deaths,” Moench said. “Heart attack, strokes, virtually every type of lung disease, virtually every type of cancer, virtually every type of pregnancy complication.”
Moreover, the plaintiffs ask the court to require the Agencies to:
-review all existing water diversions from the Great Salt Lake watershed;JD Supra
-modify diversions that interfere with the restoration and maintenance of the lake;
-continue to monitor water usage to protect the lake’s water levels; and
-facilitate public involvement in the process.
The lakebed’s lining contains arsenic, mercury, and other toxic substances that the plaintiffs say people in the vicinity will inhale. The residents of the west side of Salt Lake City and in Tooele County will disproportionately face exposure to these toxins, the release said.Kiowa County Press
The drought and drying of the Great Salt Lake are the two top environmental issues for Utah voters, according to a recent Utah State University poll. About 80% of respondents rated the state’s water crisis as a six or higher on a 10-point severity scale.KPVI
Failure to get more water to the lake — by preventing upstream diversions — will also pose a “major public health threat,” the lawsuit alleged, due to the exposed lakebed.KSL News Radio
“You have millions of people directly in the path of the toxic dust,” Dr. Brian Moench said “We will be forced to leave, (and) it would be because of the public health consequences of the newly created dust bowl.”KUER 90.1
“The snowpack that we had this last year that everybody initially thought was going to be the salvation of the lake, it’s turned out that’s nowhere near enough to save the lake long term,” says Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, one of five groups which are plaintiffs.NPR
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.PBS News
Leading experts have concluded that the state cannot sustain a minimum viable water level of 4,198 feet without modifying upstream diversions.Surf Birds
“We think this is the most important environmental issue the state of Utah has ever faced,” said Brian Moench with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, “We are disappointed we have to go to this extent, but we feel we don’t have any other choice.”The Salt Lake Tribune
In the lawsuit, the five groups are asking for a declaratory judgment that the state of Utah has a trust obligation to maintain a healthy lake elevation of 4,198 feet, injunctive relief to require the state to prevent further depletion of the water level over the next two years, and for Utah to restore the lake to the minimum healthy level within 10 years.Town Lift