Environmental groups ask judge to keep Great Salt Lake lawsuit alive

The Great Salt Lake dropped to a historic low in 2022 because of water diversion, drought and impacts from climate change.

(Megan Banta | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stansbury Island during a flyover of the Great Salt Lake with EcoFlight on Tuesday, April 9, 2024.

A coalition of environmental groups is asking a judge to keep a lawsuit over the Great Salt Lake alive.

In a filing in West Jordan’s 3rd District Court, lawyers for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Utah Rivers Council ask a judge to reject state efforts to dismiss the lawsuit.

Lawyers for the state of Utah have asked Judge Laura Scott to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing to efforts already under way to save the lake. Lawmakers have spent more than $1 billion and passed a series of bills on water conservation designed to prop up the lake.

In the court filing shared with FOX 13 News, lawyers for the environmental group plaintiffs argue the state simply has not done enough to save the Great Salt Lake.

“Even so, Defendants ask the Court to stand idly by because the Utah Legislature has taken some steps to purportedly benefit the Lake. Yet the efforts Defendants cite—commendable as many of them may be—are inadequate to ensure protection of the public trust in the Great Salt Lake, as noted by the State’s own experts. None of the efforts highlighted by Defendants in their briefs include any cuts to diversions, and none has achieved any significant reduction in water use—or meaningful increase in water reaching the Lake,” they wrote.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue judicial oversight is “essential” in this case “as the legislative and executive branches cannot be expected to police themselves, nor have they.”

The Great Salt Lake dropped to a historic low in 2022 because of water diversion, drought and impacts from climate change. Its decline sparked public alarm with an exposed lake bed whipping up toxic dust (arsenic is among the naturally occurring chemicals in the Great Salt Lake), reduced snowpack and other impacts to public health, wildlife and the economy. Utah’s Capitol Hill reacted with bills and budget maneuvers designed to help the lake and conserve water overall.

But environmentalists have demanded more concrete — and quick — action to reverse the Great Salt Lake’s declines. Many groups have argued that as noble as some of the water conservation measures have been, it is still not enough and water in the lake is needed now. That’s largely what prompted the litigation by environmental groups. Some of the same organizations are supportive of a petition to declare the Wilson’s phalarope an endangered species, which would trigger new federal regulations surrounding the lake.

The lake itself has risen more than six feet recently thanks to another strong winter. But it still remains several feet below what is considered a “healthy range” ecologically. Utah political leaders have pledged that saving the Great Salt Lake remains a top priority.

No hearing in the lawsuit between environmental groups and the state has been scheduled yet.

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake—and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.