UDOT’s plan for Little Cottonwood Canyon gondola just prompted another lawsuit

A lawsuit filed Monday by Salt Lake City and Sandy alleges UDOT did not adequately analyze how drinking water in the Salt Lake Valley would be impacted by construction in the canyon.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023. A lawsuit filed Monday by Salt Lake City and Sandy alleges UDOT did not adequately analyze how drinking water in the Salt Lake Valley would be impacted by construction in the canyon.

Days after environmental groups filed a lawsuit alleging Utah cut corners in an environmental study of Little Cottonwood Canyon, two municipalities and a water district have filed their own litigation against state and federal entities.

Salt Lake City, Sandy City and the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday alleging the Utah Department of Transportation and other government bodies failed to fully study the environmental impacts of construction in the watershed canyon.

The lawsuit filed Monday requests that the court toss out the department’s environmental impact study and prohibit any further progress in UDOT’s plans to address the traffic issues in Little Cottonwood until a new EIS can be done.

“Clean, safe drinking water is not something we take for granted — and we will take every step necessary to ensure this resource is considered and protected for residents throughout the valley,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a news release Monday afternoon. “Salt Lake City made consistent formal requests throughout the process to include such critical analysis, as is required of the NEPA process, Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision to evaluate water resource impacts, but each failed to adequately do so.”

The plaintiffs, like those in last week’s lawsuit filed by environmental advocates, allege the state did not follow the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which outlines the environmental considerations that require study when planning large infrastructure projects. Both lawsuits have requested a new EIS be conducted.

The municipalities are not only suing UDOT, but also the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Forest Service and UDOT executive director Carlos Braceras, among others.

In a statement Monday, a UDOT spokesperson John Gleason said the department is aware of the new lawsuit, adding, “we have not yet reviewed the details of the litigation and cannot comment on specifics.”

The department hopes, according to Gleason, to complete Phase 1 of its plan — which includes expanding bus services and implementing tolling — by the start of the 2025-2026 ski season, but the lawsuits could delay that timeline.

“However, due to litigation, implementation of the bus service and other improvements may be delayed,” UDOT spokesperson John Gleason said in an emailed statement. “At this time, we still do not know the full impact that any of the legal challenges will have on the implementation of improvements such as bus service and tolling.”

The government entities say they are specifically suing UDOT and others in hopes of protecting the area’s drinking water, claiming the department’s EIS failed to map out the impact on the valley’s water resources. They also accused UDOT of failing to meet the standards outlined in the NEPA law.

However, Monday’s lawsuit makes clear that the municipalities don’t want to block transportation improvements, and are interested in protecting drinking water for residents in the Salt Lake Valley.

Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski said in the news release Monday the EIS did not include State Road 209 or Wasatch Boulevard, which she said accounts for nearly half of the traffic leading into Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“With the addition of a 2,500-stall parking structure at the mouth of the canyon, the influx of additional traffic would have a serious detrimental financial and public safety impact on the most environmentally sensitive area of Sandy City,” Zoltanski said in the news release. “In addition, we have a shared obligation to protect the Little Cottonwood Canyon watershed, which is the primary source of drinking water for Sandy residents.”