SALT LAKE CITY — Two powerful politicians pushed back on criticism that the Utah State Legislature isn't doing enough to save the Great Salt Lake, sparking an impromptu counter-protest at an environmental summit.

"While we’re trying to shift big policy items on Capitol Hill there are things that are being done that don’t help the lake at all," Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, told a crowd attending the Friends of Great Salt Lake Issues Forum on Wednesday.

Watch the video here. 

The event hosted by the environmental group is held every couple of years. It brings together political leaders, conservationists, scientists, academics and other advocates from a wide variety of viewpoints to talk about issues dealing with the Great Salt Lake. Given the situation facing the lake, there was no shortage of things to talk about from dust mitigation and migratory birds to policy issues like agriculture and water diversion.

On Wednesday morning, House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, and Rep. Snider, who is tasked by the House Republican majority with running Great Salt Lake bills, spoke about the efforts being done on Utah's Capitol Hill.

"We have to find the balance," Speaker Schultz said, referring to competing interests and policy ideas about the lake.

Speaker Schultz said he was proud of legislation passed this year that set new regulatory frameworks for mineral extraction industries on the Great Salt Lake and how much water they can take in the future. The legislation also set guidelines for a healthy range of the lake's water levels and salinity. The Speaker credited public awareness about the Great Salt Lake for driving many of the efforts.

Rep. Snider noted that in politics, they can't please everyone and insisted lawmakers have made "monumental, historic" changes to protect the lake. But then he leveled his own criticism of activists who have filed a lawsuit and staged protests critical of the state's efforts.

"Frivolous lawsuits about trust and birds? Those only hinder progress long term politically as we work to save the lake. Having an obituary about the Great Salt Lake or some sort of climate grieving therapy session? That does nothing to save Great Salt Lake nor does dancing as a bird," Rep. Snider said, referring to performance art demonstrations staged inside the Capitol during the legislative session.

Instead, the northern Utah lawmaker urged the crowd to donate toward the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust seeking to secure water rights for the lake or buy from a local farmer's market to help an agriculture producer afford to switch to water-saving technologies.

Rep. Snider's remarks prompted some boos and scoffs in the crowd.

"How do you feel about phalaropes, Casey? Lo, what do I see!" said the moderator, former state lawmaker Tim Hawkes.

It was then that one of the dancing birds that famously performed on Utah's Capitol Hill entered the room, whirling and twirling up the aisle toward Rep. Snider, who burst out laughing. The bird masked performer danced up on the stage, breaking the tension in the room.

"The good representative really looks like he could use a hug!" Hawkes chuckled. "Don’t you agree, audience?"

Rep. Snider and Speaker Schultz laughed and applauded as people in the room cheered. In an interview with FOX 13 News afterward, Rep. Snider defended his remarks.

"If you want to save the lake? There are concrete, tangible steps that we can make. But the theatrics around this ultimately undermine credible arguments moving forward," he said.

Environmentalists who are actively suing the state of Utah stood by what they were doing, saying it was clearly forcing the state to take action and holding politicians' feet to the fire.

"What we’re trying to do is to put urgency to the situation, to call for needed action now and not to get lost in this 'Let’s kick the can down the road, we had a good water year, we’re making a plan to make a plan,' these kinds of things we tend to hear from elected officials," said Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state. "We need water to the lake."

The Great Salt Lake dropped to a record low in 2022, alarming the public and political leaders for the ecological catastrophe it presents. A drying lake brings toxic dust (arsenic is one of the naturally occurring chemicals in the lake bed), reduced snowpack, harms to public health and wildlife and the potential cause billions of dollars in damage to the economy.

The Great Salt Lake is benefiting from yet another great winter. During his own speech to the crowd, Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed — tasked with enacting plans to reverse the lake's declines — said it is up more than five feet now. The lake is still several feet below what is considered ecologically healthy.

"It appears we are now turning a corner," Steed said, though he was quick to say he is not declaring victory at all and more measures will need to be taken to protect the lake.

Lynn de Freitas, the head of Friends of Great Salt Lake, said there is still so much more to do. But she also offered some defense of legislative policy shifts, while also sticking up for the actions of those who protest and bring litigation.

"As the Wicked Witch of the West said, 'These things need to be done delicately.' But they do," she said. "And they need to be done effectively and wisely. So I respect the Speaker, I respect Rep. Snider. I work with them. Part of it is education, enlightenment and then, results."

Speaker Schultz told the crowd he believed conservation efforts are working. He gave some environmentalists a little relief when he declared that the controversial Bear River Pipeline, which could divert significant amounts of water from the Great Salt Lake toward development in northern Utah, needs to be re-examined (the House Speaker made similar comments in an interview with FOX 13 News last year).

"The current Bear River Pipeline that’s on the books? Isn’t likely to happen and probably shouldn’t happen," he said Wednesday.

Reacting to that proclamation, Seed told FOX 13 News: "It was kind of the best thing I heard all morning, was that. Seriously!"

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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