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Great Salt Lake is rapidly shrinking and Utah failed to stop it, lawsuit says

The lake first reached an all-time high in the summer of 2021, fueling renewed attention from Utah’s Republican-led legislature. But the actions of lawmakers have not been enough to allay concerns from a coalition that includes, among others, Earthjustice, the Utah Rivers Council and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

“We are trying to avoid a catastrophe. We’re trying to force the state government to take serious action,” said Brian Moench, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

Emma Williams, spokeswoman for Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. The Associated Press sent an email seeking comment to the Utah Federation of Agricultural Bureau.

Joel Ferry, chief of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said he could not comment on the matter, but added that the state was “actively working with many interested parties on the lake.”

State officials have repeatedly identified restoring the lake as a top priority. But despite a temporary rise in lake levels this summer after record winter snowfall, the lake’s long-term outlook is bleak. Earlier this year, Cox created and filled the position of Great Salt Lake Commissioner in an effort to find solutions.

The steep drop in water levels that has halved the Great Salt Lake’s footprint in recent decades stems from a dual problem: climate change has helped decimate the mountain streams that feed the lake, while the demand for these fresh water streams has exploded for new developments, agriculture and industry.

The dilemma has pulled the Utah government in two opposing directions: meeting the water needs of businesses and citizens and keeping the lake at safe levels.

Organizations suing the state, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, say the downsides of rationing freshwater upstream pale in comparison to those of the disappearance of the Great Salt Lake.

Toxic chemicals – including arsenic, lead and mercury – are trapped at the bottom of the lake. As the lake bed becomes exposed and dries out, these chemicals are carried through the air by the wind. The resulting toxic dust storms could reduce life expectancy, as well as increase cancer and infant mortality rates, Moench said, citing past cases of lakes drying up around the world.

“Millions of people are directly in the path of 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 bin. »

Stu Gillespie, senior attorney at Earthjustice, which filed the lawsuit, said Utah’s constitution clearly defines the state’s obligation to safeguard the Great Salt Lake on behalf of the public. It’s called the public trust doctrine, and it was used by the California Supreme Court in the 1980s to prevent Mono Lake from shrinking due to the diversion of water to Los Angeles. The doctrine is cited in the lawsuit.

Utah has failed to protect the lake, “even though that’s what its own reports identify as a solution,” Gillespie said. “It is very important that a court intervenes here.”

Still, most state supreme courts have remained silent or dismissed the California court’s view, said Barton H. Thompson Jr., professor of natural resources law at Stanford Law School.

“If the Utah State Supreme Court were to use it to protect Great Salt Lake water levels, it would have a very significant national impact,” Thompson said. He added that the trial is a “very plausible claim” but that his fate is “highly unpredictable”.

The lake is a watering hole for millions of birds that cross the Pacific Flyway, a flyway from the southern tip of Chile to Alaska.

As the lake shrinks, it becomes saltier, threatening brine flies that are a key food source for migratory birds such as Wilson’s Phalarope, a shorebird that breeds in North America and winters near Andes mountains, said Deeda Seed of the Research Center. Biodiversity.

Already, a colony of pelicans on the Great Salt Lake has failed after falling water levels turned its island into a peninsula, providing access to coyotes, Seed said.

“Bird species are threatened with extinction. Humans along the Wasatch Front face toxic dust events. It’s an emergency – and it’s not being treated as an emergency,” she said.