Making waves: Utah Law professors and alum Brian Steed partner to save the Great Salt Lake

RES GESTAE | Spring 2024
College of Law introduces brand-new Environmental Policy Accelerator and Great Salt Lake Initiative
by Lindsay Wilcox
Professor Brigham Daniels, a white man with light brown hair, glasses, and a light brown beard.
Professor Brigham Daniels
Assistant professor Beth Parker, a young white woman with long light-brown hair
Assistant Professor Beth Parker

In early 2023, a widely publicized report predicted that the Great Salt Lake would disappear within five years if its loss rate continued. To highlight legal pathways to restoring the lake, the Wallace Stegner Center launched the Great Salt Lake Project—and a brand-new class called the Environmental Policy Accelerator to give students firsthand experience working with policymakers to address environmental challenges.

Led by Professor Brigham Daniels and Adjunct Assistant Professor Beth Parker, the Policy Accelerator requires students to produce comprehensive research papers and reports. This year, the class focused on Great Salt Lake conservation efforts, and students published weekly legislative updates assessing bills that would affect the lake. They also, with help from Daniels and Parker, drafted press releases and opinion pieces for local media.

Collaborating with Utah leaders and College of Law alums

During the Policy Accelerator class, students also had a chance to collaborate with leaders heading conservation efforts in the state, including Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed, an '02 College of Law alum who was appointed by Gov. Cox in May 2023.

Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed, a young white man with light-blonde hair
Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed

"Law students are unique because they are incredibly smart but also incredibly driven. There is an applied focus when it comes to law students on action items. They ask, 'what can we do? How can we help?' I love that about meeting with students here," Steed said.

Initially drawn to environmental law after completing his master's thesis at Utah State University about environmental policy in Costa Rica, Steed is a natural resources expert. He previously served as deputy director of policy and programs of the Bureau of Land Management in Washington, D.C., and as executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. Steed also serves as executive director of the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water and Air at Utah State University in addition to his role as Great Salt Lake commissioner.

"I like to be engaged and doing things that matter. The Great Salt Lake matters in ways that we never contemplated previously," he said. "Declining lake levels will take all of us working together."

Professor Brigham Daniels said it has been heartening to see what his class has been able to meaningfully contribute through the Policy Accelerator.

"Students have not only had a chance to see policy get made but help policy be made. We've made a difference," he said. "The willingness of Commissioner Steed and also the willingness of legislators and other decision-makers in the state to engage has been absolutely vital."

Reflecting on policies from the 2024 legislative session

Following the Utah State Legislature's 2024 session, the Wallace Stegner Center hosted a green-bag event to discuss the most impactful bills and their effect on the Great Salt Lake. Steed discussed the challenges of keeping the Great Salt Lake at the forefront of Utahns' minds.

"There's this tendency that people will only think about water, about the Great Salt Lake, if they perceive it to be in crisis. In truth, the crisis is not as acute [this year], but we are always going to be in somewhat of a crisis in water in the state as we grow. If you look at where the Great Salt Lake is compared to where it needs to be, we are still a long way away from what is healthy," Steed said during the event. "We have to make sure that people don't get complacent, and we have to make sure that the legislature doesn't get complacent, either, in focusing on these important issues."

In the Great Salt Lake Strategic Plan, Steed outlined the following criteria for achieving successful solutions for sustaining the Great Salt Lake.

  • Ecologically sustainable
  • Economically viable
  • Politically possible
  • Technically feasible
  • Legally sound

Professor Beth Parker said students in the Policy Accelerator use these criteria when writing their own reports and asked both Steed and Great Salt Lake Deputy Commissioner Tim Davis to explain why those metrics were an important part of the plan.

"The reason we have those criteria for decision-making is so we save the lake in a way that's sustainable over time, that makes not just the lake resilient but the communities, the farms, the businesses that we need to rely upon to get water to the lake more resilient," Davis said. "We need to be able to do this not just once but to sustain it over time. Ideally, whatever happens in the future—drought, change in climate—we're able to continue to adapt to that and make smart decisions and keep the lake (once we've got it there) ideally within that healthy range and do it in a way that we've got support from the communities."

Looking ahead to the future of the Great Salt Lake

Steed lamented during the green-bag event that some have started to refer to him as "Dr. Doom" because of his realism about the lake levels, despite above-average snowpack levels.

"Mother Nature has provided us two phenomenal winters, but that's not enough to say that the lake is saved. It's far from it," he said. "It's also not enough to say that the structural things driving lake decline are fixed. They are not. We're going to have to keep focusing on those things."

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Great Salt Lake is that the lake's issues will take care of themselves, Steed said.

"The lake level directly reflects human activity, and human activity can help recover lake levels. Another large misconception is that we haven't done anything to save it. In reality, the Great Salt Lake has become the largest swing in water law," Steed explains. "There have been massive changes, and there will be more changes in law to get the tools we need to fix the Great Salt Lake."

Though his time at Utah Law was only part of his educational journey—Steed earned a master's degree in political science before starting law school and later earned his Ph.D in public policy from Indiana University Bloomington—he said he uses his law degree every single day and continues to maintain his Utah State Bar status.

"I rely on my training to analyze laws that affect the lake and understand the legal environment, even though I'm not a practicing attorney. I loved the classmates I got to associate with and that camaraderie you build during law school. It's a unique life experience that brings people together. The second year of law school formed me into the person I am today," Steed recalled. "I’m grateful that I help make decisions that impact our natural resources and the way we interact with them. I never expected to be in the role I'm in, and I feel incredibly lucky to be here. Be open-minded as you leave law school, because life presents all kinds of great opportunities."

Despite the challenges ahead as Great Salt Lake commissioner, Steed is optimistic about the Great Salt Lake Project and his connection once again with his alma mater.

"I like working with people with new and fresh ideas and energy. There are a lot of the same faces in my job, so this brings new people into the room that care passionately and have lots of focus on how we can best act to fix the lake," he said. "I love the new insights of the students and the expertise of professors in helping us understand this complicated issue. I see great things ahead."

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