Environmental groups sue Utah over Great Salt Lake levels

The Great Salt Lake
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September 7, 2023 — Earthjustice announced in a press releaseOpens in a new tab. yesterday that it is seeking court intervention to address the ecological crisis at the Great Salt Lake in Utah.  Earthjustice is representing Plaintiffs Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Utah Rivers Council.  The 30-page complaint filed with the Third Judicial District Court, Salt Lake County, State of Utah (PDF file available at the Earthjustice websiteOpens in a new tab.) names the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Utah Division of Water Rights, and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands as Defendants.

Lawsuit Background.

Conservation and community groups filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah yesterday, accusing it of failing to take adequate measures to protect the Great Salt Lake. According to the lawsuit, state officials have not fulfilled their obligations to ensure that sufficient water flows into the lake to prevent its ecological collapse. The claimants argue that upstream diversions have significantly reduced water levels, posing threats to both the ecosystem and human health in the region.

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, stated: “The baby steps Utah has taken at the Great Salt Lake are woefully inadequate to sustain the American West’s largest wetland ecosystem.”

Potential Consequences of Inaction.

If left unaddressed, experts warn that the lowering water levels could lead to a total collapse of the lake’s ecosystem, which would be catastrophic for biodiversity and the local economy. Industries including brine shrimp fishing, tourism, recreation, and skiing contribute billions to Utah’s economy and rely on a healthy lake.

Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said, “In other parts of the world, where saline lakes have been allowed to shrivel up, the end result has been public health disasters from clouds of toxic dust.”

Public Health Concerns.

As water levels decline, sediments containing fine particulates and toxic pollutants such as arsenic and mercury are exposed. These substances can be carried by the wind into nearby communities, posing significant health risks. A recent NASA study indicates that residents on the west side of Salt Lake City and in Tooele County would be disproportionately impacted by such pollution.

Legal Obligations and Public Opinion.

According to Earthjustice’s press release, under Utah’s common law and constitution, the state has a public trust duty to protect the Great Salt Lake, which is considered a resource belonging to the people of Utah. However, critics say the state has avoided this responsibility despite ongoing legislative efforts addressing the issue and the appointment of the state’s first Great Salt Lake Commissioner earlier this year.

Recent pollingOpens in a new tab. from Utah State University revealed that drought and the drying Great Salt Lake are the top two environmental concerns among Utah residents. Nearly 80% of those surveyed ranked Utah’s water crisis as a significant issue, scoring it six or higher on a 10-point scale.

Stu Gillespie, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office, said, “The Great Salt Lake belongs to the people of Utah and the state has a legal obligation to protect this resource.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order compelling Utah’s leaders to take meaningful action. The aim is to ensure that enough water is supplied to the Great Salt Lake to support both its ecosystem and the people who depend on it.


View of Great Salt Lake from Antelope IslandOpens in a new tab., Hermann Luyken, October 2021 via Wikimedia Commons.



Since 1995, Deborah has owned and operated LegalTech LLC with a focus on water rights. Before moving to Arizona in 1986, she worked as a quality control analyst for Honeywell and in commercial real estate, both in Texas. She learned about Arizona's water rights from the late and great attorney Michael Brophy of Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite. Her side interests are writing (and reading), Wordpress programming and much more.

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Ivy Batriani
Ivy Batriani
September 9, 2023 5:08 pm
A part of me is surprised that this is only just happening now. Utah made themselves constitutionally responsible for the health of the lake and I have confidence the courts will hold the state responsible. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

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