Utah files motion seeking to drop lawsuit over its management of Great Salt Lake
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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SALT LAKE CITY — Three Utah agencies are seeking to drop a lawsuit filed against them earlier this year over their management of the Great Salt Lake, arguing that the lawsuit “lacks subject matter jurisdiction,” among other things.
Lawyers for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, Utah Division of Water Rights and Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands filed separate motions to dismiss the lawsuit in 3rd District Court on Wednesday. Multiple environmental organizations filed the litigation in September, asserting the agencies aren’t doing enough to get water to the struggling Great Salt Lake, which may have future environmental ramifications.
“The state shares the plaintiffs’ concern for a healthy Great Salt Lake and the surrounding environment. Litigation, however, cannot solve every problem, and indeed, directs important resources away from efforts to conserve and enhance the lake,” Utah natural resources officials said in a statement Thursday. “The state will continue its work to save the Great Salt Lake for future generations.”
The American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Utah Rivers Council originally filed the lawsuit on Sept. 6, seeking for the state to find ways to get the lake back to its minimum healthy level of about 4,198 feet elevation. Its southern arm would need about 5½ feet to reach that level, at the moment.
The groups contend not getting there would violate the state’s public trust doctrine, in which the state “holds and manages” natural resources for the public good. They said that the doctrine should apply to the lake since it is rich in cultural history, and serves as a major environmental asset and economic driver for the state.
“The baby steps Utah has taken at the Great Salt Lake are woefully inadequate to sustain the American West’s largest wetland ecosystem and we need the state to stop ignoring the upstream water diversions that are spiraling the lake and its wildlife into oblivion,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.
Their lawsuit seeks a ruling to force the three Utah agencies to “take action sufficient to restore” lake levels to at least 4,198 feet in elevation and maintain levels at that minimum level.
The Utah agencies, however, say there are multiple concerns they have with the lawsuit. All three motions filed are Wednesday are different, but impacts to water law appear to be the top concern. Utah’s water law began in 1847, well before it became a state, as noted by Salt Lake County.
Department of Natural Resources lawyers wrote that this legal remedy “is unworkable as a matter of law and would cause the court to exceed its judicial role,” adding that it would “roughshod over prior appropriation principals and statutes” tied to water law that “have been recognized and administered since before statehood and have been enshrined in the Utah Constitution.”
“(The) plaintiffs effectively ask this court to act both as a super-legislature and a super-state engineer, judicially creating new water distribution and use rules and then overseeing their implementation,” the motion states.
It goes on to argue water is “used for a variety of beneficial purposes,” including agricultural, municipal and industrial uses, and questions if the court should be tasked with deciding how to prioritize all of these uses.
The court has yet to rule on the motion. The case’s next scheduled hearing is slated for Jan. 9, 2024, according to court records.
The agencies’ motion to file comes as Utah leaders are preparing to release a new strategic plan for the Great Salt Lake. The document, to be released next month, is expected to include both short- and long-term actions to bring water back to the lake.