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Utah lawmakers are hearing calls to protect the Great Salt Lake

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Utah's legislature is reconvening this week amid pressure to pass tougher conservation laws to save the Great Salt Lake from drying up. Drought made worse by climate change is a factor in the lake's decline. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, scientists lay most of the blame on upstream diversions for farming and Utah's booming population.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Dr. Tom Nelson was born and raised in Salt Lake City. And when he and his wife moved home after medical school training a few years ago, he says he was horrified at how bad the air pollution had gotten.

TOM NELSON: If you live in the Wasatch valley, you're now accustomed to intermittent dust storms, which are essentially dried up lakebed dust flowing into the Wasatch valley. And you can see it, you can smell it, you can breathe it.

SIEGLER: Toxic dust with mercury and arsenic blowing off the drying lakebed mixed with Salt Lake's already notorious smog. Nelson, who now runs the ER at Intermountain Medical Center - one of Utah's largest hospitals - says on bad air quality days, they're seeing more patients needing care for asthma and other respiratory illnesses. He's one of 300 doctors who recently signed a letter pressuring the Utah legislature for a more aggressive crackdown on upstream water diversions that feed the lake.

NELSON: Everyone in the Wasatch valley is concerned and agrees it's a problem, but it feels like nothing's getting done.

SIEGLER: Many Utah leaders disagree. Last year, the legislature put millions of dollars toward conservation and some incentives for alfalfa farmers upstream of the desert lake to use less water for crops. They also created a new Great Salt Lake Commissioner, appointed by the governor. The commissioner is Brian Steed. Here he is speaking at a University of Utah forum this month, warning that taking too much water away from farmers could bring its own set of ecological problems.

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BRIAN STEED: So we're looking to work with farmers and ranchers to make sure that they can stay in business.

SIEGLER: Steed says Utah bought a little time after last winter. The state had a huge snowpack, which helped restore lake levels some and lower salinity, which might help struggling wildlife.

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STEED: Really incredible water year led to increased water storage and really helped with salinity in the south arm, which was in a bit of a terrifying place at the end of 2022.

SIEGLER: Utah's Republican governor, Spencer Cox, is expected to unveil more proposals aimed at water conservation in his state of the state speech tomorrow. Now, all of this comes amid a lawsuit filed by national and local environmental groups that seeks to force state leaders to keep a lot more water in the streams that feed the Great Salt Lake. In early 2023, Utah scientists warned the lake could dry up within five years unless dramatic action is taken.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONUFF'S "MIND BLOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.