The body of water that gives Salt Lake City its name is in danger.
As far back as people can remember, the Great Salt Lake has been a wonder to drive past, a stopover for 10 million migratory birds as majestic as the great white pelican, a scenic backdrop for family ski vacations, and a boon to the local economy.
But today the lake has shrunk by two-thirds. This past year, water levels hit record lows, prompting experts to predict ecological collapse within five years. And the main culprit is not climate change, but the state’s willingness to divert two-thirds of the stream and river water feeding into the lake.
If the lake continues to shrink, its two main food chains (brine shrimp and flies) will collapse and North America’s largest migratory bird colony will vanish too. Then there’s the impending public health crisis, the question of what will happen when 2.5 million people breathe in toxic dust from the newly exposed lakebed. As water levels recede, mercury and arsenic in the lakebed — once safely underwater but now above ground — are sent into the air each time strong winds blow. One Republican lawmaker said the state is sitting on “an environmental nuclear bomb” if state officials don’t take action.
That’s why Earthjustice filed suit on September 6, 2023, representing conservation and community health groups who argue that the state violated its obligation to save the lake under the public trust doctrine.
Satellite view of the Great Salt Lake in Utah in June 1985 (right) compared to July 2022. (NASA Earth Observatory)
The public trust dates back to Roman law. It means, in the words of Earthjustice attorney Scott Stern, “There are certain resources that are so important that they can’t be owned by individuals. Instead, they belong to the public and the state has an obligation to protect them.”
The lake — and other major bodies of water — are part of this public trust under Utah state law.
That means the state has the authority and obligation to ensure enough water flows to the lake to sustain its minimum healthy elevation of 4,198 feet.
But instead, each year the state of Utah lets two-thirds of the river and stream water that has sustained the lake for millennia be diverted. And some are trying to divert even more water from the lake for projects that will bring little benefit to the people or wildlife of Utah.
We’re in court pressing the state to save the lake before it is too late.
Policymakers tend to treat Utah’s water supplies as bountiful, creating subsidies that give Utah the cheapest water in the country. According to Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council, one of the groups that brought the case, 70% of the water diverted from the lake goes to growing crops that are not sustainable or native to the region; wasteful corporate projects; and watering grass, not only on people’s lawns but along off-ramps on the highway.
“There’s a cornucopia of easy solutions to put water in the Great Salt Lake,” he says. Reducing upstream water diversions is essential. He claims this along with low water landscaping, following the conservation policies nearby states do, and using canals rather than pipes to irrigate farms would supply the city and nearby farms with all the water they need without endangering the lake.
But if nothing’s done, Utahns are facing a public health disaster. As lake levels decline, salt concentrations rise until even the shrimp and flies at the base of the food chain can no longer survive. Birds will start to starve to death. And they’re not the only ones in danger.
The lakebed is full of neurotoxins such as mercury and arsenic known to interfere with a human fetus’s development, cause loss of muscular control, and contribute to heart attacks, high blood pressure, and asthma. These neurotoxins are already becoming airborne in the form of dust. The potential for a massive toxic dust storm grows as the lake dries up and exposes greater areas of the lakebed.
Today Salt Lake City gets about 15 dust storms a year, compared to none 15 years ago. As many as 2.5 million people live within range of these storms — many of them on the city’s west side, where a majority of residents are people of color. Environmental justice advocates are outraged, saying those with wealth can relocate elsewhere while everyone else will be forced to endure the life-altering consequences.
Park visitors walk by a rock formation on the banks of the Great Salt Lake at the Great Salt Lake State Park in 2021. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
In other places salt lakes have dried up, the result has been disastrous, according to Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. For example, toxic dust from the bed of Central Asia’s Aral Sea, formerly the fourth-largest saline lake in the world and now almost completely desiccated, has created a cluster of health crises for people nearby.
“In Uzbekistan the population has seen a life expectancy plummet 13 years,” Moench says. “Child mortality has skyrocketed. Respiratory illnesses have increased, including drug-resistant tuberculosis. The list is almost endless. That is the outcome we fear from the drying of the Great Salt Lake.”
In January, 300 medical professionals delivered a letter to Utah policymakers warning that unless enough water reaches the Great Salt Lake to reverse its recent decline, a serious public health crisis will plague the state’s future.
The state is to blame for this pending crisis. So Earthjustice is in court trying to force the state to live up to its duty to protect one of its most wondrous natural resources.
“For a long time, the state didn’t see the lake as a protected resource,” Stern explains. “Now they’re racing to catch up. We don’t even understand all the health consequences for more and more lakebed being exposed. It’s not like there is a remote possibility that this will affect the air of Utahns. There is a certainty. How bad it’s going to get experts can’t say yet.”