Tom Goldsmith: Explaining ‘The Lake Neglect’ to people not from Utah

Without the lake, there is no place, there is no home for any of us.

Have you ever tried explaining Utah to people who live outside the state? Not the effortless narrative we jump into automatically like rhapsodizing about the desert’s grandeur and the powder up the canyons. That’s easy.

People outside of Utah concede its unique beauty, but also seek explanations for the other Utah. It’s simple to brag about alpine forests as though working for the Chamber of Commerce. But they want to know the hard stuff not found in brochures.

Folks who do not live in Utah appear baffled by the state’s failure of nerve. Be it water conservation, radioactive waste, pollution of its skies and rivers, there’s a drought of environmental will and political ethics. And nothing ever changes without inserting a little determination.

People outside of Utah press for insights into how a theocracy really functions. If 90% of the legislature belong to the same conservative faith, does half the state who are not part of the dominant culture feel at all represented?

After living in Salt Lake City for 35 years, two granddaughters enticed us to move to another state. The hard part of it is fielding the onslaught of questions I should have examined more carefully as a Utah resident.

Like most people who find themselves facing two opposite realities vying for the same space in your psyche, I compartmentalize. I shoved the Utah Legislature into one corner of my brain to avoid paying too much attention to it. Then I soothed my soul with Utah’s compensating gifts of outdoor splendor and downtown culture. That’s a lot more fun.

But then my new friends get down to the core of their existential puzzlement. What about the lake they ask? Is it true that the Legislature cannot resolve the impasse with a bunch of alfalfa farmers? Three rivers feed 67% of the Great Salt Lake, yet these farmers divert the water for their own crops? The farmers deserve every penny of compensation for the loss of their crop, but why does the Legislature fail to act?

I try to explain that the Legislature takes care of their fellow Latter-day Saints, motivated by a strong sense of lineage and attachment to place. Some legislators also own the farms along the rivers feeding the erstwhile Great Salt Lake. But the rejoinder, echoing in a chorus of disbelief, underscores a life-saving perspective that desperately needs to be adopted.

The wind will carry the toxins contained in exposed lake beds in sundry directions. Have any lessons been learned from the downwinders? Aside from endangering humans, more than 10 million migrating birds will be severely impacted. Restoring the lake is not a partisan issue. We all have skin in the game, even the alfalfa farmers. Even the state legislators. Lake apathy may become the leading cause of death in Utah and its environs. Who would possibly want to carry that responsibility?

Only my Utah friends understand the ubiquitous phrase assimilated into the Utah culture and lexicon: This Is the Place. On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young spotted the Great Salt Lake from the lofty vantage of Emigration Canyon. He declared its vast beauty the perfect place to grow a new community for the 148 pioneers who traveled with him escaping persecution. Thousands would follow.

Has the Legislature decided unilaterally that this is no longer the place? Allowing the “Place” to die simply from neglect, dishonors the vision of Utah’s foundational leader.

Religious differences may ultimately clash leaving the fate of the lake in the balance, but most of Utah’s population, regardless of faith, insists that the Great Salt Lake remain the place. It was the place the early settlers called home.

Without the lake, there is no place, there is no home for any of us.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rev. Tom Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years at the head of this Unitarian Church, on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.

Rev. Tom Goldsmith, Portland, Oregon, is minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City.