State of Utah Releases Inadequate Plan to Save the Great Salt Lake

Conservation groups demand that the state stop approving and address upstream water diversions


Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, 202-792-6211,

Conservation and community groups voiced dissatisfaction over a series of recommendations from Utah’s Great Salt Lake commissioner for the Great Salt Lake. Commissioner Brian Steed delivered his plan to Utah’s governor and legislators in late 2023 but details were not released until this week.

The so-called Great Salt Lake Strategic Plan details the rapidly-unfolding crisis facing the Great Salt Lake and the citizens of Utah. The plan recounts in detail the record decline in the lake level, acknowledging that the lake “had begun to collapse” in 2022, threatening the entire ecosystem. The plan also details increased dust storms that place millions of residents in harm’s way and threaten billions of dollars in economic damage.

The plan acknowledges the source of the problem: upstream water diversions, which have precipitated a rapid decline in lake levels. It also acknowledges the severity of the problem: the lake is at 4,192 feet, posing “serious adverse effects” to the lake, its ecosystem, and the public. And it reaffirms the pressing need to raise the lake to its minimum healthy elevation of 4,198 feet.

However, the plan does not impose any binding measures to avert the unfolding crisis. It recognizes the immediate need for a contingency plan to prevent the lake from dropping below 4,190 feet, but does not deliver one. In fact, the contingency plan will not contain any requisite cuts in water diversions. Rather, it proposes “voluntary” reductions in water uses, while assuring “protections for water right holders” – the very source of the problem. More problematic yet, the plan sets a 30-year timeframe for restoring the lake to its healthy elevation – a timeline that sacrifices the public health of a generation of Utah citizens.

In September, groups filed suit against the state of Utah for its failure to take appropriate and necessary action to address the crisis and protect the lake. The lawsuit seeks a court order directing Utah’s leaders to implement meaningful solutions that will provide enough water to the Great Salt Lake. Upstream water diversions deprive the lake of more than two-thirds of the water that would naturally flow into it each year. Continued declines in the lake’s water levels threaten public health, biodiversity, and the people and industries that depend on the lake.

“Imagine if you went to a doctor who told you that you might consider cutting down on your smoking… 30 years from now. Of course, you would find a new doctor,” said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, one of the plaintiff groups in the lawsuit. “This plan is almost a cruel insult to the very idea of protecting public health. Public health needs to be protected now, not 30 years from now. If this is the best the state can do, it is an admission that it doesn’t really understand the public health consequences of letting the lake dry up or isn’t willing to do what’s necessary to prevent it. In either case, it is prima facie evidence that the state is failing in its most important responsibility.”

“This plan only cloaks Utah’s true intentions to continue turning a blind eye to the crisis the state created at the Great Salt Lake,” said Zach Frankel, executive director for the Utah Rivers Council. “This vanilla plan is just another piece of propaganda meant to hide the damage actively being done to the Great Salt Lake at the hands of Utah water agencies who have too much power to be reined in by taxpayers.”

“This is not a plan. It is a confession of past failure and a promise of future calamity. What it does provide is convincing clarity that our lawsuit is the lake’s best – and last – hope,” said William Sheehan, vice president and general counsel at American Bird Conservancy.

“The state of Utah is not complying with its obligation, as trustee, to safeguard the Great Salt Lake,” said Stu Gillespie, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “This so-called plan is notable for what it fails to include: binding commitments to prevent any further declines in lake levels. Nor is there any commitment to ensure the lake returns to its minimum healthy elevation. At best, it’s a plan to prepare a plan, underscoring the state’s failure to confront this rapidly-unfolding ecological and public health crisis.”

“This plan-to-make-a-plan utterly fails to meet the moment of crisis facing the Great Salt Lake,” said Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The commissioner’s proposal lacks specifics and leaves 10 million birds from over 338 species at risk. Some bird species are profoundly dependent on this lake, which hosts the highest concentration of Wilson’s phalarope in the world and over 95% of the entire eared grebe population. Utah must act now to get more water to the lake to save these precious birds, and not just kick the can down the road.”

“The commissioner’s plan stops short of meaningfully protecting the Great Salt Lake,” said Maria Archibald, lands and water programs senior coordinator at the Utah Sierra Club Chapter. “Anything less than a tangible plan to restore the lake to a minimum of 4,198 feet is not only insufficient, but also a dangerous distraction from an impending environmental catastrophe that will devastate millions of migratory birds, expose communities to toxic particulate matter, and threaten Utah’s economic stability.”

Earthjustice is representing Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and Utah Rivers Council in the lawsuit filed against the state of Utah.

A wide landscape photo of a large brown beach where the lake used to be
View of Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake. (Nick Pedersen / Getty Images)

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