Brigham Daniels: The Great Salt Lake needs water, and we need hope

The only way to change the future of the lake is to change ourselves.

(Alexis Perno | Great Salt Lake Collaborative) Spiritual leader Rios Pacheco of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation speaks to the importance of the Great Salt Lake to his community.

Recently I ran into a friend. Because she knew that I practiced law and spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges facing the Great Salt Lake, she asked with a heavy tone, “What legally can be done once the Great Salt Lake dries up?”

My friend is generally an optimist and her negative assessment surprised me. I looked her straight in the eye and told her, “Look, don’t give up hope. We still have some time. We are going to beat this problem.”

While I was unprepared for her initial negative assessment, what came next floored me. She started sobbing — real anguish, tears streaming down her face. The future of the lake and what it would mean to the area she called home had weighed heavily on her. She told me that she needed to hear that we still had hope.

She is hardly unique in feeling overwhelmed by the future of the lake. I get emails and text messages from friends around the country, who wonder if it is as bad as the news media makes it out to be. Locally, a day does not pass that we don’t hear news about the lake’s plight. My interactions with a wide range of experts on the lake suggest it is as bad as it seems. There is little doubt that the lake is facing an existential crisis.

But, so are many of us. We can see that the death of the Great Salt Lake would not only mean the death of an environmental treasure, it would also mean the loss of the livability of our communities. Our fate is tied to the lake. There is a lot to mourn when we are trading blue herons for toxic dust storms.

As bad as it is, though, we need to come to grips with the fact that we still can beat this. Although the lake cannot change its plight, we can, and we must.

The only way to change the future of the lake is to change ourselves. Even though change is hard, it is possible. The first (and, in many ways, the biggest) barrier we face is the loss of hope.

We need hope. Like my friend, we need to believe that the challenges we face are surmountable — that we can still change the future and that our efforts can make a meaningful difference. Hope precedes action, and we need to find the courage to act. We need to have hope that others will join us as we act, that our neighbors will also make sacrifices to maintain the beautiful place we all call home.

We need hope in our elected officials and others with sway over the government. It takes hope to contact them and express our concerns. It takes hope to support candidates that are responsive to our desire to see collective change.

Every week or two, I meet someone in our valleys who has not heard about the plight of the lake. While some of us are still learning that the lake is facing challenges and how these challenges could impact society, many of us are not just informed, but overwhelmed. We may feel that the lake is doomed and that the environmental nuclear bomb has been detonated, and we are just waiting for the fallout.

For those feeling that we are beyond hope, hear this: There are a number of potential, realistic pathways to solve the problem we face. This is not going to be easy, but what needs to happen is obtainable. Let’s start talking about solutions: the ways that individuals, organizations and communities can use less water — particularly outdoors. The role of policymakers at all levels. The role that philanthropy and volunteerism can play. And, let’s not just stop at thinking more about solutions. Let’s start working together on them.

Above all, let’s not give up hope. A future without hope is not a future, it is a punishment.

This week on Thursday and Friday, the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah College of Law will host a symposium discussing the future of the Great Salt Lake. The second day of the symposium will focus on potential solutions to the challenges we face. Particularly for those feeling overwhelmed, please join us. To register for the conference online, go to sjquinney.utah.edu/wallace-stegner-center-symposium.

Regardless, I encourage you to have hope that we are up to solving this problem. We are. Saving the lake requires more than understanding its plight. It requires us to act. Hope is the seed that can sprout into real efforts and mature into a solution.

Brigham Daniels

Brigham Daniels is a visiting professor at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.