Neel Patel: Why I can’t move back to Utah

I can no longer defend my old home town if the Legislature won’t protect the Great Salt Lake.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A couple on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, with Stansbury Island in the background, on Monday February 27, 2023.

I have been living outside of my home town of Salt Lake City since 2017. I often consider moving back, but the uncertain future of the Great Salt Lake and the Utah Legislature’s recent failure to address the problem is actively keeping me away.

I grew up in Salt Lake City, but it was only after leaving for college in the midwest that I appreciated my home for the gem it is. I was an ardent defender and promoter of Utah whenever any of my classmates discounted it as dry, dull and homogenous.

Returning to Salt Lake City for medical school at the University of Utah gave me the clarity to see my home for all it is: a growing and vibrant city, a world-class outdoor recreation destination with close proximity to many astonishing ecosystems, a vital health care resource for the Mountain West and my family’s home for the past 31 years.

Training as a radiologist took me away to major cities on the west coast and I now live and practice in Portland, Oregon. Despite the many merits of living in Portland, my home city still calls to me. The health of the Great Salt Lake is the foundation to everything I love about my home and the decline of the lake puts all of it in jeopardy.

The problem and many of the solutions are eloquently detailed in the now famous and nationally publicized report about the lake by Ben Abbot and co-authors. Generations of water overconsumption and diversion coupled with heat and drought accelerated by climate change has driven the lake level to a record low.

This past legislative session, Gov. Spencer Cox and the Legislature did not pass meaningful legislation to preserve and restore the lake, including creating a minimum target lake elevation of 4,190 ft. It is hard to comprehend this failure to act in the face of such an immediate and obvious disaster.

I want to see Salt Lake City thrive, but I am concerned that it will not be a healthy place to live within a decade. The recent legislative session did nothing to assuage my fears. If the concern is that conservation focused legislation will stifle economic growth, I hope my feelings argue the contrary. The current actions are keeping me away, and I have more reasons than most to move to Utah. This problem will only get worse without a reprioritization towards a future that includes the lake. The health of the lake is the health of all of us.

When I left for college, I promoted Salt Lake City to everyone who would listen. A decade later I talk about my home with trepidation and grief. I am even thinking of exit strategies for my family and friends if there is no change of course. I am hopeful that future legislation and collective action will meaningfully address the problem and ensure the city will succeed.

I am encouraged by the recent decision of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to donate 5,700 water shares to the lake, but there is much more to be done.

It saddens me to say it, but until the prognosis of the lake improves, I don’t see a future for myself in Utah and you shouldn’t either.

Neel Patel

Neel Patel, M.D., is a radiologist in Portland, Oregon.