What We Don’t Know About Great Salt Lake…

Jun 11, 2014 | EDR Blog

By Rob Dubuc for EDR Blog.org

One of my great privileges these last five years or so has been to serve as attorney for, and president of the board of Friends of Great Salt Lake (www.fogsl.org). Great Salt Lake is a vastly misunderstood and unappreciated national treasure, and unfortunately many of the citizens of Utah, some living in a city named after the Lake, have no concept of just how important the Lake is.

One of the Lake’s biggest problems is that it’s downhill of everything in the watershed. Industrial waste flows down to the Lake – either directly or indirectly. So too does treated wastewater, and untreated stormwater. Fertilize your lawn and what your lawn doesn’t absorb ends up in the Lake. And as more and more homes are built along the Wasatch Front, less and less water will eventually end up in the Lake. Lakes tend not to do very well without water.

When it comes to protecting the Lake, Friends sees itself as a staunch advocate willing to do whatever it takes. The mission of Friends is to preserve and protect the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem through education, research and advocacy. And even though I’m an attorney, I believe that the order of those three approaches – education, research and advocacy – is correct.

First and foremost, we can’t expect the citizens of Utah to appreciate the Lake unless we educate Utahns how very important it is. If your perspective is one of economics – fine; the Lake contributes $1.3 billion annually to Utah’s economy. If it’s wildlife – no problem; 7 million birds a year use the Lake as a nesting and resting stopover. If what you care about is recreation – OK; when was the last time you went trail running out at Antelope Island and ran alongside a coyote, had a herd of pronghorn cross in front of you and had to run around a bison laying on the trail?

As for research, Friends consistently takes the position that policy towards the Lake must be guided by best available science. In spite of years of research, the Lake continues to mystify us. It is such a complex ecosystem that is so little understood that oftentimes decisions are made in a vacuum. That not only goes for permitting decisions made by the state, but it goes for Friends as well. And when we don’t know if something is going to be harmful to the Lake, Friends takes a very conservative approach and assumes that it will be. And that’s where advocacy comes in.

Advocacy is a tricky beast. Sure, it’s bringing legal action, but it’s also something else – it’s the art of persuading someone to help you achieve your goal. In this case, to protect the Lake. From my perspective, bringing a legal challenge to a permitting decision, for instance, should be the last resort. Unfortunately, I don’t think organizations get taken seriously unless they have access to good legal counsel and are willing to stay the course. Call it deterrence if you want, but whether we like it or not, that threat needs to be looming on the horizon. But setting that aside, if both parties are willing to be reasonable, it should be possible to find a middle ground.

Which brings me to the discharge permit into Great Salt Lake for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District Southwest Groundwater Treatment Plant. This plant, which was built under a Superfund settlement agreement to clean up Kennecott Utah Copper’s legacy pollution on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, is a reverse osmosis plant that plans to dump the contaminants from the plant into the Lake. This discharge permit has been, and remains controversial. Without going into the history of the plant, when this was first proposed about seven years ago, it caused such an uproar that the Division of Water Quality stepped away from the decision to permit the plant and launched a multi-year, multi-million dollar study to assess the impact of the selenium from the discharge on the Lake.

So here we are, that many years later and that many dollars shorter, and I don’t believe we’re any closer to having the answer to that question: will the discharge harm the Lake? And with the Lake this low, will the discharge across the mudflats along the south shore harm wildlife in that area? So after the draft permit was issued, we entered into discussions on what it would take to allay Friends’ fears about the discharge. The Division of Water Quality was going to require Jordan Valley to run a pretty rigorous protocol of tests on the area of the discharge to determine what impact, if any, the discharge would have. Jordan Valley will have to test water, soil, bugs, plants, even brine shrimp. They’ll have to do bird surveys and coordinate the testing of bird eggs. In short, they’ll do what should be done when you don’t know the answer to something – research.

But in order to satisfy Friends’ concerns, we wanted a seat at the table, and we wanted our expert to be a part of the team that studied the test results. To address that concern, I offered to DWQ and Jordan Valley a compromise. Friends would hold off bringing a legal challenge to the 5-year discharge permit if the parties could agree to a mechanism to work together to determine if the discharge was harming the Lake. What I proposed was for each party – Jordan Valley, DWQ and Friends – to nominate a scientist of their choosing to sit on a science panel that would oversee the annual testing done by Jordan Valley, and that would be charged with the task of reaching a consensus on whether or not the ecosystem was being harmed. If they agree that the ecosystem is being impacted, the panel will be charged with recommending what changes need to be made to fix the problem.

RobThere are, of course, mechanisms for resolving any differences among the scientists, but I’m optimistic that the group will work together well and hopefully be able to agree on the results. For Friends, the bottom line is if best available science shows that the Lake is not being harmed, Friends will not oppose the discharge in the future. By taking what I believe is a reasonable approach to a complex problem, we can use education and research to avoid having to bring advocacy into play when it comes to this discharge. And the Lake will be better for it.

Rob Dubuc has a B.A. degree in Business Management from the University of Maryland, an M.B.A. from the University of Montana, and a Juris Doctrate degree from the University of Utah. He currently works as staff attorney for the Salt Lake City office of Western Resource Advocates, a non-profit environmental law and policy organization dedicated to protecting the West’s land, air and water. Besides his work helping protect Great Salt Lake, Rob’s law practice focuses on guarding against impacts from tar sands and oil shale development in the Book Cliffs area, ORV damage in Utah’s National Forests, and industrial air pollution along the Wasatch Front. He also practices before the Utah Public Service Commission, advocating for a move away from coal-fired electric power plants towards energy efficiency and renewable electric generation. Rob is currently President of the Board of Friends of Great Salt Lake.