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Dispatches from the present


Losing the Lake


Excessive water use is draining the Great Salt Lake. It could be gone, a 2023 scientific report warns, within five years. The lake’s ecosystem is collapsing. The silt at its bottom contains toxic metals, which, when dry, blow in dust storms and imperil the residents of northern Utah.  

The American Bird Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the Utah Rivers Council are suing the state of Utah together in an attempt to restore the water levels. Under the public trust doctrine of the state constitution, the plaintiffs argue, the state has an obligation to protect the lake for the good of the people. Were they to win the lawsuit, the state would be required to redirect water to the lake. But there is a question about whether the state can restrict private water rights for the public good. State agencies have filed motions to dismiss the case, and private water users have filed motions to intervene. The litigation will likely continue into the summer.

Deeda Seed is a former Salt Lake City Council member and a senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. She has organized for civil rights and economic and environmental justice in Utah for the past forty years. And for the past forty years with her family and friends she has visited the Great Salt Lake’s Antelope Island, which is now no longer an island. Here she discusses the urgency behind the lawsuit.

—Molly Montgomery

I moved to Utah when I was eighteen for college. I had a very troubled childhood and almost didn’t graduate from high school and was suicidal, and my parents put me on an airplane and waved. I landed in Utah, having only been here once before. I rode my bike out to the lake. And I saw these birds. American pelicans, Wilson’s phalaropes, avocets, ducks, snowy plovers, eared grebes, willets. I thought, “What’s a pelican doing in a sagebrush environment?” The experience of seeing those birds I’d previously only seen on the shores of the ocean, in a desert valley, was life-changing.

You can still see them out there. But scientists started to notice that the food web was collapsing in [the fall of] 2022. The lake was at its all-time historic lowest level. Brine flies and brine shrimp are a very important part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. The brine flies were disappearing, and those that were being hatched in some instances were deformed. And the brine shrimp are unhealthy in water that is too salty. The salinity level was so high that they were imperiled. The brine flies and the brine shrimp are a major food source for the migratory birds that use Great Salt Lake as a refueling system. In one scenario, the birds starve to death.

The state made the decision to cut off the north arm of the lake from the south arm, because the north arm is much saltier, to ensure that all the water going into the lake went into the south arm, decreasing the salinity of the south arm and staving off the crisis. They basically are leaving the north arm of the lake for dead. Gunnison Island, an island in the north arm, has been for years an important pelican nesting area. Because the water levels are so low, coyotes are getting onto the island. Last year scientists went to check on the status of the pelicans, and where there had been tens of thousands there were almost none.

What happens with the lake determines the future of life in northern Utah. It’s the most important issue that I’ve worked on in my forty-year career as an organizer. You can tell probably by how I talk about things that I feel very strongly about protecting the natural world. But a primary motivating factor of our work to save Great Salt Lake for many people is the direct threat to human health presented by a dried-up lake. Over three hundred doctors signed on to a letter about the health impacts to humans of this drying. All sorts of heavy metals and other toxic things have settled into the sediment, and it’s very fine and silty, and it’s becoming disturbed in some places. When the dust becomes airborne, so does all the toxic material. Most of the dust hotspots are near the densest population areas in northern Utah. These dust storms are degrading our air quality further and could be adding new dangers. The other thing we’re learning is that a dry lake bed creates conditions that cause ozone to form, which inflames people’s lungs.

There’s this larger societal question: What is the value, ultimately, of our water? Does it make sense for us to cause this major water body to collapse in an ecological catastrophe of enormous proportions to allow a relatively few number of people to continue using the water?

We have the water to restore the lake’s levels. If you look at the hard numbers, if agricultural water use disappeared tomorrow, we’d be in great shape. There needs to be a nuanced, well-funded approach to working with farmers to compensate them for their land and to allow for some kinds of farming to happen. There’s an area by Utah Lake, the southern part of Utah Lake, which is apparently, according to the scientists, a really great place to farm. If we’re farming anywhere in Utah, it should be there. But there’s this push to build thousands of acres of industrial development into that farming area and wetlands. Then there are other areas where the farming is entirely dependent on all these water resources that aren’t sustainable, and the alfalfa grown there is being shipped overseas, which is just shipping our water out of our state.

The responses that we’re getting from the people with the power to change the situation don’t reflect the urgency of the situation. There are still elected officials fantasizing about bringing water from the Pacific Ocean or the Mississippi River to Great Salt Lake, thinking that’s going to magically solve the problem. And there was an article in the newspaper today quoting our governor saying, “Oh, don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine. Basically, we can continue to grow at this rapid pace. And don’t worry, the lake is not going to dry out.” He doesn’t give any specifics or details about how he’s going to ensure that the lake is going to be okay. And he’s saying we can continue to do exactly what we’re doing. As a former small-time elected official, I know that government bodies tend to choose the path of least resistance, to ignore problems that are inconvenient until they’re raging disasters.

There are two possible outcomes: one is, a community becomes increasingly unlivable and dangerous; the other is, we’re going to save what we love. How do we manage the anxiety and grief that comes with the possibility of losing the lake while at the same time doing everything we can to make sure that worst-case scenario doesn’t occur?

Image credit: “great salt lake bed” (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)