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Opinion: Let science and facts determine future of Utah Lake

We must explore solutions with openness, considering multiple perspectives with respect, regardless of differences.

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Dense phragmites lines the shore of Utah Lake, near Mulberry Beach in Utah County on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. 

Dense phragmites lines the shore of Utah Lake, near Mulberry Beach in Utah County on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. 

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah Lake is surrounded by wildlife, growing cities, conservation groups, boaters, scientists, a rich cultural heritage, sportspeople and citizens who all want the best possible future for this amazing life-giving resource. 

For more than a century, when European settlers arrived, they dumped raw sewage and industrial waste into the lake, introduced nonnative species of fish, overfished, moved, altered or destroyed tributaries to supply irrigation to farmers and, in the process, fundamentally altered the makeup and devastated the health of the lake. 

Utah Lake is a vital migratory bird nesting site. It’s not just the shoreline that is vital, it is the fields and open spaces around the lake that have been used by nesting cranes, geese and other birds for centuries. These open lands are being developed into much-needed housing at a breathtaking speed, putting many species at risk.  

Many of the current discussions are full of misinformation, shortsightedness, unrealistic expectations, name-calling and fear. Fear that proposed interventions will cause irreversible harm and that proposals will be rubber-stamped by government agencies charged with protecting the environment.  

The issues facing the lake now are unprecedented. Severe drought, population growth, the shrinking Salt Lake that it feeds, are all problems that require what National Geographicrefers to as an “explorer mindset.” This is a combination of attitudes, skills and knowledge that lead to an agreement among stakeholders as to how to move forward.

The attitudes of an explorer include curiosity, concern for the welfare of people, cultural resources and the natural world. We must explore solutions with openness, considering multiple perspectives with respect, regardless of differences. 

Explorers take responsibility for passing on accurate information by fact-checking claims, using only primary sources and not perpetuating untruths and material taken out of context. 

At the Hutchings Museum Institute, we have conducted studies, explored and improved Utah Lake since the 1920s. For the past three years, we have partnered with the Utah Department of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands to operate a field station on the north shore of the lake.  

We teach the fundamental skills of an explorer. These include observing and documenting data and collaborating with others to interpret and share findings. We follow a strict code of ethics in how we communicate these findings and observations. We fact-check and vet any statement from any source before including information in educational content about the lake.

Explorers collaborate to achieve goals. They generate, listen to and evaluate ideas based on accurate information in order to identify alternatives and weigh trade-offs to make well-reasoned decisions. 

Explorers work to increase knowledge. The human journey is all about where we have been, where we live now (and why), and where we are going. 

Utah Lake is no stranger to bold interventions. In 1900-1901 a severe drought shrank the Jordan River to 25% of its normal flow. 1902 saw the world’s largest water pumps installed, which by 1907 were capable of delivering 1,600 gallons of water per second from Utah Lake into the Jordan River.

Explorers are empowered to have an impact; to get their hands dirty and make a difference.

As we consider where we are going, how we are affected by our current severe drought, changing weather, the shrinking Salt Lake and communities between the two lakes. It is more important than ever that we deal in facts, not rumors.

We must be willing to pay the price of educating ourselves from sources other than social media and soundbites on the news. 

We can’t turn back the clock. We can learn from the past what mistakes and lack of consideration for the future we need to consider. We need to be open to considering new and bold ideas to safeguard the future. If these proposals, after intense scrutiny from the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Environmental Protection Agency, along with public input, show they will do more harm than good to the environment and surrounding communities, then permits will not be issued and they won’t go forward.

Those decisions deserve to be made on the scientific studies that will take place over the next few years and not on lies and misinformation. We are part of an ecosystem; we don’t operate in stand-alone silos. We need to invest time in understanding the complexities of these issues and resist the temptation to oversimplify and villainize. We need to consider the devastating cost of doing nothing. 

Finding agreement by developing an explorer mindset and looking at the issues we are facing through the lens of curiosity will lead us to the understanding we are seeking.

So, what can we do? How can individuals, families, businesses and civic leaders impact the many issues we are facing and begin to solve them? Don’t be afraid to ask questions from the sources. Take time to understand the processes, legislation and their implications. Stop falling for fear tactics and participating in spreading falsehoods. 

Being a well-informed member of the community and contributing to the future requires effort. Together we can explore and create solutions for the future. 

Daniela Larsen is the executive director of the Hutchings Museum Institutein Lehi. She is a certified National Geographic educator focused on creating online education, conservation and historical preservation.