Authorities in Utah have pushed the Great Salt Lake to the brink of ecological collapse because they allowed water upstream to be diverted for decades to farmers growing alfalfa, hay and other crops, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by a coalition of environmental groups.
These conservationists want a court to step in and force the state to let more water reach the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi River, which is an oasis for millions of migrating birds, a engine for Utah’s mining industry and a tourist attraction. .
And the risks of a shrinking Great Salt Lake aren’t just for beached sailboats and wider shorelines. This threatens species extinction and clouds of toxic dust rising over nearby communities, according to the lawsuit.
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 Utah Governor Spencer Cox, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. The Utah Federation of Agricultural Bureau did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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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. Republican Gov. Spencer Cox earlier this year created a post and chose the first-ever Great Salt Lake Commissioner in a bid 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 decimated the mountain streams that feed the lake, while demand for that same fresh water has exploded. for new development, agriculture and industry.
This has put the Utah government in a bind – torn between 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 effect of freshwater rationing upstream pales in comparison to that of the disappearance of the Great Salt Lake.
Toxic chemicals including arsenic, lead and mercury are trapped in the bottom of the lake. As more is exposed and dries, the chemicals are exposed to the vagaries of 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 bowl. »
Stu Gillespie, senior attorney at Earthjustice, who filed the case, said Utah’s law and constitution clearly define its obligation to safeguard the Great Salt Lake, which belongs to the public. Part of that obligation, Gillespie said, is to protect the headwaters that keep the lake at healthy levels.
“The state has taken no action to achieve this, even though that is what its own reports identify as a solution,” he said. “It is very important that a court intervenes here.”
The lake is a watering hole for millions of birds that cross the Pacific Flyway, a migration route 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 migrating birds, said Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity. In turn, birds like Wilson’s Phalarope – a shorebird that breeds in North America and winters near the Andes – will struggle to find enough nutrients.
Already, a colony of pelicans on an island in the Great Salt Lake has failed after their island became a peninsula, letting coyotes in, 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.
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