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Green groups sue, say farmers are drying up Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake this winter, before spring runoff increased its elevation
Kirk Siegler
The Great Salt Lake this winter, before spring runoff increased its elevation

The state of Utah is not doing enough to save its imperiled Great Salt Lake and stop an impending ecological collapse, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by national and western environmental groups.

The suit filed in Utah state court seeks an injunction that would force state leaders to come up with a comprehensive plan to prevent the lake from drying.

State lawmakers have recently put hundreds of millions of dollars toward conservation and other water saving rules, but the groups say it amounted to "baby steps."

A spokesperson for Utah Governor Spencer Cox declined to comment on the pending litigation.

"The snowpack that we had this last year that everybody initially thought was going to be the salvation of the lake, it's turned out that's nowhere near enough to save the lake long term," says Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, one of five groups which are plaintiffs.

The lawsuit follows a recent report by scientists at Brigham Young University and other institutions warning that the Great Salt Lake could dry up within five years. Scientists put most of the blame on upstream water diversions for alfalfa farming and a recent population boom. Drought and climate change are also believed to be a factor in the lake's decline, albeit much smaller.

"If the lake is allowed to disappear, not only are the public health consequences dire, but the economic consequences are equally dire," Moench says. "We're afraid that a lot of the population will be forced to leave."

Dust storms coming off the drying lakebed pose health risks due to the toxicity of its sediments. Scientists say the lake has historically helped boost Utah's winter snowpack, and reservoirs fed by it, due to lake effect storms.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.