SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Department of Natural Resources, the Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands and the state engineer have asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups over the Great Salt Lake.

The lawsuit was filed by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Utah Rivers Council and American Bird Conservancy. They essentially accuse state agencies of not doing enough to protect the Great Salt Lake, which dropped to a record low last year as a result of water diversions, drought and climate change. The Great Salt Lake's dramatic declines create an ecologic crisis for the state with toxic dust (arsenic is a naturally occurring mineral in the lake bed), impacts to public health and wildlife and even harms to Utah's lucrative ski industry as a result of reduced lake-effect snow.

The environmentalists litigation seeks to force the state to take more drastic measures to protect the lake, including overriding upstream water rights.

"The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands understands and appreciates the importance of Great Salt Lake to the ecology of the region, the economy of the State of Utah, and the health of Utah’s citizens. FFSL also recognizes the serious situation presented by a declining surface elevation in Great Salt Lake. However, the legal solution offered by Plaintiffs is unsupported by Utah law and disregards the many and varied mechanisms the State is utilizing to manage Great Salt Lake," the division said in its legal filing.

In a statement to FOX 13 News, the Utah Department of Natural Resources insisted it was taking action to protect the lake.

"The Great Salt Lake is an important resource and critical component of the ecosystem in northern Utah. The state is heavily invested in protecting and enhancing the lake," the agency said, citing legislative water conservation measures and funding.

"Additionally, Gov. Spencer Cox has suspended future water appropriations in the Great Salt Lake basin, and the state has implemented policy changes to help preserve and protect the lake. The legislature has created various legal mechanisms that bolster the state’s stewardship of Great Salt Lake. These mechanisms include the ability to dedicate water rights for the enhancement of the natural aquatic environment of the Great Salt Lake, the establishment of a water banking framework, the creation of split-season leases, and the opportunity for saved water—realized through agricultural optimization projects—to be committed to the lake."

The agency said it shares the plaintiffs' concern about the Great Salt Lake.

"Litigation, however, cannot solve every problem, and indeed, directs important resources away from efforts to conserve and enhance the lake. The state will continue its work to save the Great Salt Lake for future generations," it said.

In response, Earthjustice, the legal firm representing the environmental groups, said it didn't buy the state's claims.

"We've reviewed the state's arguments and find them to be unpersuasive, especially in light of the escalating crisis at the Great Salt Lake. We'll look forward to responding substantively in due course," Scott Stern, an attorney with Earthjustice’s biodiversity defense program, said in an email to FOX 13 News.

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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