As the civil rights movement was rising in the United States in the 1960s, its leaders had an expression for what was happening. It went something like, “We’re not where we want to be. We’re not where we ought to be. But, thank goodness, we’re not where we used to be.”
On paper, and in the papers, Utah is reaching such a point when it comes to solving the crisis of the shrinking Great Salt Lake. There is widespread realization that we cannot just sit back and wait for Mother Nature to refill the lake.
We see that it will take human action, sustained and expensive, to stop the rapid shrinking that threatens not only its economic output and the birds and other wildlife that depend on its ecosystem, but also the lives and livelihoods of the millions of people who live near its shores.
The Utah Legislature has demonstrated that it no longer considers the lake a stinky waste repository, its protection something to be left to bird watchers and environmental extremists. Lawmakers are coming to see that the economic development they generally value above all things is threatened by the clouds of toxic dust that will threaten our communities if the lake continues its march to oblivion.
In recent years, lawmakers have allocated significant money to studies and plans to preserve the lake. Perhaps most important is its action to allow the upstream holders of precious water rights to allow water to flow on to the Great Salt Lake and retain their long-term ownership, ruling that water that flows to the lake is indeed being put to beneficial use and not wasted.
At the federal level, Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Blake Moore are sponsoring legislation that would allocate $25 million over five years to assess the problem and propose solutions, solutions that take into account the impact of global climate change.
Local news media have likewise seen the crisis situation and set aside a competitive attitude to form a reporting alliance called the Great Salt Lake Collaborative. Through that, The Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News and more than a dozen 12 local news organizations are sharing resources to bring more attention to the problem, reporting on our own lake’s situation and similar circumstances in other places, such as Owens and Mono lakes in California.
One of the things we’ve learned from that effort is how California saved its Mono Lake from disappearing by invoking the ancient principle of the public trust. That’s the idea that natural resources belong to the public and that each generation has the obligation to protect them for future generations.
It’s a lesson that may have limited utility in Utah, as the only entity that could be faulted for taking water that rightfully belonged to Mono Lake was the water utility that serves the city of Los Angeles. Were we to try to preserve the Great Salt Lake with such a legal theory, water rights belonging to perhaps hundreds of water districts, municipalities and individuals would have to be challenged.
Still, the spirit of the public trust doctrine has promise. The Legislature can and should judge just about every action it takes, not necessarily only those that are overtly tied to water use and water rights, on the basis of whether it is good for the Great Salt Lake.
The state must continue to expand its research, to get a specific handle on where our water is, how it is being used, or not used, treating water like the measurable, finite resource that it is. The aggressive stance it has taken to allow water rights to be sold, leased or lent, sharing the burden of preserving the lake, must continue.
Long-standing plans to dam or divert sections of the Bear River, the largest tributary to the Great Salt Lake, must be shelved, if not abandoned altogether. The idea that we can bolster our water supply by overriding nature and holding it in artificial containment areas just does not hold up, no matter what foolishness Sen. Mike Lee may spout about the need to sweep away environmental protections so we can build more dams.
Such disrespect for nature is also manifest in ideas such as building a pipeline to bring water all the way from the Pacific Ocean. Or creating a fleet of small nuclear power plants to pump underground water into the lake.
There may be a kernel of a good idea in there somewhere. But at first glance all that sounds way too much like the thinking that got us into this mess in the first place, the idea that we can bend nature to our will if we are only willing to spend enough money.
As they say in the 12-step programs, the first step to a cure is to admit you have a problem. There is reason to hope that Utah has come at least that far. All of us need to make sure that our elected leaders never forget that.