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Lawsuit argues Utah has failed to address the shrinking Great Salt Lake

Jenny Thompson
Adobe Stock
The lake bed of the Great Salt Lake is laced with arsenic, mercury and other toxic substances, according to the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Conservation and community groups have filed a lawsuit against Utah for what they claim is the state's failure to ensure enough water gets to the Great Salt Lake, to avoid what they call an "ecological collapse."

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Utah to let more water reach the largest natural lake in the Western Hemisphere.

John Leshy, professor emeritus of law at the University of California-San Francisco, said the lake is a "public trust" resource per the state's constitution. He added the court will examine what the designation means when it comes to managing and protecting it.

Back in the 1970s, the California Supreme Court stepped in to protect Mono Lake from its water being diverted to Los Angeles utilizing the Public Trust Doctrine. Leshy argued it could set a strong precedent in Utah.

"The Utah courts will have to make up their own minds about what Utah law said on this subject," Leshy acknowledged. "But obviously if they look to the Mono Lake situation, they will do something along the lines of 'You can't let this important resource disappear from inaction,' because that is what the future holds unless the courts intervene."

Leshy pointed out potential public health impacts make the Great Salt Lake case different and more serious than the Mono Lake case. According to a NASA study, residents in west Salt Lake City and Tooele County will be disproportionately affected by the exposed lake bed sediment which contains fine particulates and toxic pollutants. Critics of using the "public trust" approach said there are multiple water users to consider, and other, less drastic solutions to improve the lake's health.

Stu Gillespie, senior attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, filed the lawsuit. He contended the Utah Constitution imposes public trust duties, forcing the state to protect the Great Salt Lake, which now sits below the point experts said is needed to remain viable.

According to Earthjustice, the state cannot sustain a minimum water level of about 4,200 feet without modifying upstream diversions. Gillespie stressed the law is on the plaintiffs' side.

"The lake has gone into a structural decline in recent years," Gillespie pointed out. "The elevation has dropped, dropped and dropped, hitting record low levels. And as a result, that is triggering widespread impacts to the ecosystem, and also creating a public health crisis."

In Utah State University polling, a large majority of Utahns see drought and a drying Great Salt Lake as their top two environmental concerns. Gov. Spencer Cox's office would not comment on ongoing litigation.