Environmental groups sue Utah over crisis at the Great Salt Lake

Plaintiffs invoke the public trust doctrine to restore the lake to a healthy level.

On Wednesday, Sept. 6, environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah over its failure to prevent what they describe as the impending collapse of the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem. A scientific report released earlier this year warned that the lake was in “unprecedented danger” and could disappear in five years due to unsustainable water use.  

As the Great Salt Lake dries up, the resulting habitat loss and toxic dust threaten the health of birds and other wildlife species, along with the millions of human beings who live along the Wasatch Front. The new lawsuit invokes the public trust doctrine, arguing that Utah has a legal obligation to protect the waters and land of its inland sea for the common good. The plaintiffs — Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, the American Bird Conservancy, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Utah Rivers Council — argued that the state has breached its trust obligations by allowing the lake to recede.


“The public owns the navigable waters, including Great Salt Lake, and the state holds those in trust for the public,” said Stu Gillespie, senior attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law organization representing the plaintiffs. “As a trustee, it (the state of Utah) has a certain set of obligations to safeguard and protect the Great Salt Lake, and yet it’s failing to do that.”

A flock of red-necked phalaropes flies over the Great Salt Lake at sunrise. Red-necked and Wilson's phalaropes rely heavily on the abundant brine flies and brine shrimp of the lake to fuel their migratory journeys from South America to the Arctic. As smaller saline lakes along their journey dry up, the Great Salt Lake becomes increasingly important for the survival of these birds.

The case will be heard in Utah’s 3rd District Court. Plaintiffs are seeking two specific forms of relief, beginning with a declaratory judgment that the state has a trust obligation to maintain a healthy lake elevation of at least 4,198 feet — the minimum healthy level, according to scientists. The lake hit a record low of 4,188 feet in November 2022 and currently sits at 4,192 feet despite a record-breaking snow year. Second, plaintiffs are asking the court to grant injunctive relief, requiring the state to prevent further depletion of the water level over the next two years and to restore the Great Salt Lake to 4,198 feet in 10 years.

Prior appropriation — the “first in time, first in right” doctrine that determines water rights in the West — is subject to the public trust doctrine. That means that the state must manage water rights to ensure that it’s not impairing the public trust. This is a core principle of the lawsuit, Gillespie told High Country News. “There’s a tension there between prior appropriation doctrine and the public trust doctrine. And it’s a crucial tension,” Gillespie said. If the plaintiffs win the suit, the state may have to manage water rights to restore the lake to a healthy level.

“There’s a tension there between prior appropriation doctrine and the public trust doctrine. And it’s a crucial tension.”

Since 2022, the Utah Legislature has passed 18 bills related to water use and the Great Salt Lake, allocating money for turf buyback and a water trust, as well as for agricultural improvements to encourage farmers to use less water. Utah’s water law was also updated so that instream flows to the Great Salt Lake are now considered a beneficial use. The beneficial use rule, referred to as “use it or lose it,” states that water-rights holders must use all their water or risk forfeiting it.

In an email statement sent to High Country News, Joel Ferry, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, a defendant in the case, said, “The state has been actively working with many interested parties on the lake. Working together, we have found more productive ways to effect change.”

The conservation groups party to the lawsuit disagree, arguing that these changes still do not guarantee that enough water is reaching the lake. They point to the fact that, despite last winter’s record snowpack, the Great Salt Lake is still below a healthy level.


Two California gulls dine on brine flies at the Great Salt Lake.


“There’s urgency to the situation that is not being matched by action from our elected officials, and that’s why we took the difficult step of suing,” said Deeda Seed, senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The consequences of the lake drying up are catastrophic.”

The Great Salt Lake — the largest inland saline waterbody in North America — provides habitat for 10 million migratory birds, while the local industries that depend on it, such as brine shrimping, collectively contribute over $2 billion to Utah’s economy each year. Due to water diversions, however, the lake has received less than a third of its natural instream flow over the past three years. As the water recedes, lakebed sediments containing arsenic, mercury, nickel, lead and other pollutants are picked up by the wind, forming toxic dust clouds that engulf the cities and towns along the Wasatch Front, home to over 80% of Utahns.

“Wherever you have an environmental disaster, you’re going to have a public health disaster,” said Dr. Brian Moench, board president and co-founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

“Wherever you have an environmental disaster, you’re going to have a public health disaster.”

Salt Lake City is already ranked among the worst cities in the U.S. for air quality. The region suffers from what Moench calls the “four horsemen of the airpocalypse”: winter inversions, summer ozone, wildfire smoke and now, exposed lakebed sediment. Scientists estimate that air pollution already reduces the life of the average Utahn by two years. And research from other regions with dried-up saline lakes indicates that Utah’s public health problems could become much worse if the Great Salt Lake continues to shrink.

“The outcomes are everything from shortened life expectancies to sudden deaths,” Moench said. “Heart attack, strokes, virtually every type of lung disease, virtually every type of cancer, virtually every type of pregnancy complication.”

This looming public health disaster has some Utahns concerned about the future livability of their home. Seed, who has lived in Salt Lake City for 40 years, said, “I have children, and I want my children to be able to live here if they choose to. And, honestly, right now the prospect of them not being able to live here, it’s just it’s hard to wrap my head around it.”

A view of Compass Minerals evaporation ponds looking toward the Promontory Mountains where the Bear River feeds into the Great Salt Lake. Due to a record snowpack this year, there is water passing through this area. In 2022, the Bear River dried up before reaching the Great Salt Lake.

Brooke Larsen is the Virginia Spencer Davis Fellow for HCN, covering rural communities, agriculture and conservation. She reports from Salt Lake City, Utah. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. Follow her on Instagram @jbrookelarsen or Twitter @JBrookeLarsen.