AnalysisClimate Crisiswater rights

Broad coalition launches campaign to save the Great Salt Lake from profit-driven decline

A broad coalition of community leaders, environmental non-profits, Indigenous nations and working-class organizations, including the Party for Socialism and Liberation, launched a campaign in January to save the Great Salt Lake from water diversions and terminal decline. 

Local water districts want to divert ever more water from the Great Salt Lake, benefiting large landowners, real-estate developers and other capitalists. This could spell ecological catastrophe for northern Utah, already plagued by serious environmental problems

Organizers are building a mass movement to exert maximum pressure on the Utah Legislature, which meets from Jan. 18 through March 4. Moving a rally on Jan. 15 online due to Utah’s record coronavirus hospitalizations, the fight-back continues through art actions, a “ghost demonstration,” and a postcard campaign flooding legislator’s inboxes.

Great Salt Lake in decline: toxic dust storms and drought

Reaching record lows in July 2021 due to diversions and climate change, the Great Salt Lake’s levels have dropped enough to require redrawing maps of its shores. According to their website, the state’s Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program expects “this negative trend to continue. In fact, it is estimated that the lake is 11 feet lower due to human diversions.” 

Liberation News spoke with Chandler Rosenberg, who co-founded Save Our Great Salt Lake because of the urgency of the situation. “Losing even a few inches exposes a large amount of the lakebed,” which contains “arsenic … pesticides, mercury” and “other chemicals from industry,” she said. As Utah’s prevailing winds sweep across this newly exposed lakebed, it causes toxic dust storms — the more lakebed is exposed, the deadlier these storms are.

Rosenberg emphasized the delicate ecosystem and the importance of an intricate net of microscopic organisms in the lake called microbialites, which “are the foundation of the lake’s ecosystem,” feeding brine flies, brine shrimp, and hundreds of migratory bird species. As the lake level falls, microbialites“ are exposed and die — if we lose them we lose the lake’s ecosystem,” Rosenberg explained.

Northern Utah’s water supply depends on mountain snowpack, which ultimately flows into the Great Salt Lake. The Great Salt Lake, when full, supports this snowfall through evaporation. However, dust from the exposed lakebed melts the snowpack, setting off a feedback loop that accelerates the Great Salt Lake’s decline.

As previously reported by Liberation News, Salt Lake City routinely suffers from some of the world’s worst air quality. Exposed lakebed is already contributing to this poor air quality, along with pollution and wildfire smoke.

Demands for environmental justice 

A collapse of the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem and dependent hydrological system would make Northern Utah unlivable for millions. Rosenberg explains, “as the lakebed is exposed, the wind blows these toxic chemicals along the Wasatch Front. The working class and people of color are those primarily exposed.” 

In her speech at the  Jan. 15 virtual rally, Christina Chirvasa of the Sunrise Movement explains this exposure as limited access to quality healthcare and an inability to afford the $1000 to $4000 filtering and insulation. Chirvasa continued, “the values of the homes near the Great Salt Lake will be going down as the air quality is poorer,” which would prevent the working poor from relocating to a safer location. 

The economic losses to Utah, estimated at $2 billion, would also hit working and oppressed people the hardest. Chirvasa identifies the brine, mineral, recreation, tourism, and ski industries as sites of potential job losses. Due to these losses, “it would most likely be education and social services that would take a budget cut,” disproportionately hurting workers who are already deeply suffering. Chirvasa concludes, “saving our Great Salt Lake … means fighting for social justice.” 

The lake is already a site of struggles for environmental justice, including the proposed Inland Port that members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and community leaders have been fighting for years. Meanwhile, U.S. Magnesium recently faced allegations of illegal disposal of hazardous waste while providing an essential mineral for the military-industrial complex and U.S. wars overseas. 

Ever-increasing water diversions are part of a long history of destructive capitalist development along the lake, beginning when settlers arrived in the 1840s as part of the white supremacist, genocidal project of Manifest Destiny. These capitalists reap the profits. Without an alternative, working people face hazards and eventual job losses. 

Brad Perry, Vice Chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, spoke to the importance of the Great Salt Lake and its salt in the lives and history of the band. “This is part of our aboriginal territory,” along with the Skull Valley Goshutes and other tribal nations. “We’ve lived here for thousands of years … in harmony with mother Earth.” Perry explains that the current imbalance means “we’re losing a natural resource that has always been there,” which is “tied directly to our … water supply, which is being affected by climate change — we need to become more climate adaptive.”

Perry argues that drinking water and agriculture should be prioritized over unnecessary uses for this precious resource. Prioritizing lake inflows and habitat restoration would help to reverse the decline in snowpack and long-term water supplies. “We can help the planet maintain a regulatory balance.”

A mass movement to save the Great Salt Lake

Instead, new water diversions are routinely pushed by water districts and other state authorities, despite Utah having the highest per-capita water use in the country. Utahns also pay some of the lowest water rates in the country. Instead, water infrastructure is funded through property taxes, which hide the true cost of water from consumers.

These taxes facilitate Utah’s rapid economic growth. Chandler Rosenberg provides an example — the state government cuts taxes for “new corporate data centers that take the most water, which is being subsidized by working-class homeowners who are barely getting by.” Facing lobbying from capitalist interests who benefit from new projects, the State of Utah routinely prioritizes capitalism’s need for endless growth over working people’s livelihoods and the environment.

Only a mass movement can compel the Utah Legislature to halt these diversions and reverse the Great Salt Lake’s trend toward catastrophe. The campaign to save the Great Salt Lake believes this can be achieved through engaging the public including environmental activists, Indigenous people, scientists, and community activists in a struggle for environmental justice.

You can support Save Our Great Salt Lake’s campaign here. To learn more about socialist solutions to climate change and how to get involved in organizing this critical struggle, we encourage you to check out a free, online course developed by the Party for Socialism and Liberation and purchase the PSL book “Climate Solutions Beyond Capitalism.”

Photo: Organizers stage ghost rally at the Utah State Capitol on Jan. 18, the opening day of Utah’s legislative session. Liberation photo

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