Opinion: Utah is sabotaging efforts to save Great Salt Lake

Citizens and the courts can still save the lake, but shining a light on the legislature’s anti-environmental machinations is a necessary first step.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The shore of the Great Salt Lake on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

Last week, the state announced its “strategic” plan for planning to think about someday perhaps considering the possibility of contemplating throwing a “sustainable” bucket of “resilient” water in the direction of the Great Salt Lake — three years from now. Anticipating this tepid, inadequate response, several environmental groups filed suit against the state in September. But what the state didn’t announce was multiple ways they are still actively permitting and promoting its demise. Peeking behind the curtain reveals not just foot dragging, but state duplicity, as well, and even more urgency for our lawsuit.

Last week, Utah’s Legislative Auditor General released a scathing audit that found Utah’s cornerstone solution to addressing the Great Salt Lake crisis, the Agricultural Water Optimization Program, may not have sent a single drop to the lake. The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) failed to collect annual reports from grant recipients as statutorily required. Missing reports made it impossible for auditors to track how much water has actually been saved, or whether any of that water reached the lake — or just watered more alfalfa. At best, the apathy in finding out the results calls into question the state’s sincerity about saving the lake.

It gets worse, much worse.

Behind the scenes, key legislators are still squirreling away taxpayer money to fund the Bear River Development Project, which, by itself, would be a catastrophic blow to the lake because the Bear River is its largest tributary. They are crafting a bill to purchase 5,000 acres in Whites Valley northwest of Tremonton, to build a reservoir to steal 220,000 acre-ft more water from the Bear River annually — more than three times the amount of water savings achieved by recent water conservation programs in the Great Salt Lake watershed.

Meanwhile, the Utah Inland Port Authority (UIPA) is hell bent on force feeding the Wasatch Front multiple new inland ports, totaling over 50,000 acres, most of which are on top of, or right next door to the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake wetlands. We cannot save the Great Salt Lake ecosystem if we amputate its wetlands. UIPA claims their ports will not destroy wetlands and that their opponents who dispute those claims, i.e. Stop the Polluting Port Coalition and many others, are being dishonest with the public. To claim that smothering wetlands with roads, parking lots, massive warehouses, tens of thousands of diesel trucks, train tracks and a sea of asphalt and cement, miraculously doesn’t destroy them, is a fairy tale with an ugly, polluting ever after.

The Division of Air Quality will almost certainly grant a permit for a new, massive gravel pit/limestone quarry in Parley’s Canyon. Truth in advertising should force the state to replace its license plate slogan of “Life Elevated” to “Life Excavated.” Local governments and environmental groups will likely sue to try and stop the mine, but among the many reasons to oppose it is the water consumption required in a flailing attempt to suppress fugitive dust. It would require between 200,000 and 1,000,000 gallons of water annually per acre of denuded canyon land, according to Dr. Gregory Carling at BYU.

Mike Schultz, the new House majority leader, is personally doing his part to dry up the lake. He has applied for drilling rights to withdraw 181 million gallons of water not far from the Great Salt Lake to build “one or two small reservoirs” he can use to raise cattle and alfalfa on his recently acquired 25,000 acre ranch. And he wipes away push back claiming his ranch is for “sustainability [no one can use that word too many times] between wildlife, habitat and the resource as a whole.” What?

Experts who challenge the dishonesty, hypocrisy, inaction or environmental disregard of the legislature’s bullying big wigs, can count on facing their wrath and retribution. Just ask Erica Gaddis (fired from the DWQ), BYU Professor Ben Abbott (loss of state grant money), Dr. Suzanne Harrison (denial of an Air Quality Board appointment) or Dr. Courtney Henley (insulted at a UIPA board meeting). All had the audacity and courage to tell an inconvenient truth on science and environmental issues that powerful legislators don’t want interfering with their developer-driven agenda.

Citizens and the courts can still save the lake, but shining a light on the legislature’s anti-environmental machinations is a necessary first step.

(Brian Moench)

Dr. Brian Moench is president and co-founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, one of the organizations suing the state to save the Great Salt Lake.

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