Conservation groups are suing Utah over its management of the Great Salt Lake, which continues to shrink and expose the Wasatch Front to toxic dust.

In a 31-page complaint filed in Utah’s 3rd District Court on Wednesday, attorneys for the group Earthjustice claim the state’s “failure” to get enough water to the Great Salt Lake is damaging public trust resources.

“This failure to undertake all feasible means of maintaining the Lake at a healthy elevation constitutes a breach of Defendants’ duty to manage the Great Salt Lake consistent with the principles of prudent administration,” the complaint reads.

The complaint directs the state to “take action” to stop further decline of the lake’s average elevation within two years of the court’s decision, and asks the Utah Department of Natural Resources to review “all existing water diversions” from the lake.

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The state must then “modify any diversions that are inconsistent with the restoration and maintenance” of the Great Salt Lake, the complaint reads.

Earthjustice is representing Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Utah Rivers Council, all conservation groups.

“Utah’s common law and constitution impose robust public trust duties that require the state to protect the Great Salt Lake, whose waters belong to the people of Utah. Leading experts have concluded that the state cannot sustain a minimum viable water level of 4,198 feet without modifying upstream diversions,” reads a press release from Earthjustice.

Public trust doctrine preserves certain cultural or natural resources — like artifacts, wildlife, navigable waterways or land — for public use. According to the doctrine, the government has a duty to protect these resources.

The complaint points out public trust doctrine is “well established” in Utah code, upheld by Supreme Court decisions and the state’s constitution. Because the Great Salt Lake is a “historically navigable waterway” and the lakebed is considered sovereign land, the lake is a public resource, the environmental groups say.

“As trustee, the State of Utah has an ongoing obligation to protect the Great Salt Lake’s waters and underlying lands, so that Utahns can continue to use them for navigation, commerce, brine shrimp fishing, recreation, and other uses recognized under the public trust doctrine,” the complaint reads.

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Deeda Seed, the Utah campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the decline of the Great Salt Lake will have negative health impacts for all of northern Utah.

“In addition to the millions of people who live here, so many plants and animals depend on the lake, including 12 million birds from more than 300 species. They make this area unlike anywhere else. The state of Utah’s complete abdication of its responsibility to protect the lake threatens our ability to live in this spectacular region,” Seed said in a statement.

According to the complaint, the state’s failure to manage the lake stems from upstream water diversions for agriculture, development and other industry, which “contributed to an annual deficit of more than 1 million acre-feet of water.”

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In November 2022, the lake hit a historic low, dropping to 4,188.5 feet. As the lake shrinks, more lakebed is exposed which contains toxic, heavy-metal laden dust kicked up by strong winds.

“In other parts of the world, where saline lakes have been allowed to shrivel up because of upstream diversions like those happening at the Great Salt Lake, the end result has been public health disasters from the clouds of relentless toxic dust,” said Dr. Brian Moench in a press release.

Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, an environmental advocacy group outspoken on air pollution. “Utah’s leaders are prioritizing these water diversions over protecting their own people, so the courts must intervene,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Utah Attorney General’s Office said the office is still reviewing the lawsuit, and declined to comment Wednesday.

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