Should the Great Salt Lake be considered a person? Group says yes, Utah bill says no
Jan 23, 2024, 8:00 PM
Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.
SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, says he was approached not too long ago by constituents with examples of peculiar legal cases emerging in other states and countries in recent years.
He referenced the story of an elephant in New York and the Komi Memem River in Brazil, as he spoke to members of the Utah Legislature’s House Business and Labor Committee. In both cases, groups seeking to protect the animal and the body of water argued for legal personhood to give them rights they otherwise didn’t have in law.
“They were utilizing personhood as kind of arming themself to beat people over with. It’s usually attorneys and environmentalists that are trying to get that mechanism to get some ground,” he said, as he presented a proposal to counter it. “There’s ways we can preserve (the listed items) going forward, but trying to mix the idea that it’s actually a human person is not appropriate.”
Brooks crafted HB249, which would ban any government entity — legislative or court — from granting or recognizing “legal personhood” to any body of water, artificial intelligence, any inanimate object, land, real property, atmospheric gases, an astronomical object, weather, a plant, a nonhuman animal and any member of a taxonomic domain that isn’t a human being.
It received a favorable recommendation from the committee, which voted 13-1 Tuesday to advance the bill.
While Brooks said the bill wasn’t written with the Great Salt Lake in mind, environmentalists say it could damage efforts to protect the Great Salt Lake, which reached a record low in 2022.
Nan Seymour and Denise Cartwright, members of the coalition Save Our Great Salt Lake, embraced in the hallway of the Utah Capitol moments after the vote, surprised and upset by the outcome. Both had spoken out against the bill, as did others who referenced the Great Salt Lake as an example of why it could be a handy tool.
“Maybe it’s an unfamiliar idea to a lot of people and they haven’t researched what’s happening globally,” Seymour said. “They don’t see how effective it actually is.”
The idea that something that isn’t a human can get personhood has been used in different ways, as Brooks explained. In 2022, New York’s Court of Appeals ruled that Happy, an elephant in the Bronx Zoo, wasn’t considered a person being illegally confined to the zoo, the Associated Press reported at the time.
The Nonhuman Rights Project, a group that brought forward the case, argued that Happy is autonomous and cognitively complex, worthy of the same rights as any person. State judges determined that while Happy deserves “care and compassion,” the elephant isn’t a person, the outlet reported.
However, last year, the municipality of Guajara-Mirim in Brazil applied the same concept to the Komi Memem River and its tributaries as a way to protect its natural flow and help the Indigenous communities who rely on it.
In the Great Salt Lake’s case, Seymour said the philosophy could give the lake a higher priority in water rights, something that it has historically lacked. The lake normally receives water that isn’t diverted upstream, but it could be given an exact allotment of water.
Sadie Braddock, a Utah State University graduate student, said that is something Utahns are interested in doing. She presented the findings of a study the university did last year, which found that nearly 60% of 436 residents surveyed either somewhat or strongly support water rights laws that “discourage ‘use it or lose it’ and encourage ranchers and farmers to lease out their water rights and divert water” to the lake.
A slightly higher percentage said the same when asked about changing water rights laws to give the lake its “own rights to water” so that it receives more water.
“I was hoping it would be more impactful,” she said after the vote, referencing the data she presented. “The Great Salt Lake is so intricately tied to Utahns’ health and economy. The lake’s health is our health and so it would be really nice to see that in action maybe somewhere down the line.”
Most of the committee members see the issue differently.
Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem, said he and his colleagues are “committed” to saving the Great Salt Lake, and he believes that can be done without calling it a person. Several agencies already oversee the lake’s issues and efforts to get more water to it, Brooks added.
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said the same applies to other entities that would be included in the bill, adding that he’s worried it could lead to a legal mess somewhere along the way.
“Giving them the same rights as a person creates a whole morass of problems that we would now have to think through,” he said. “I really appreciate what this bill does. It says, with these problems, this is not the right tool.”
The bill now heads to the House floor for a final vote in the chamber. No Senate sponsor has been assigned yet. All bills must receive approval from the Utah House of Representatives and Utah Senate before the legislative session ends on March 1.
If approved, the proposal would take effect on May 1.
Those opposed to the bill say they will continue to oppose the bill this session, but their work won’t end if it is signed into law.
“We think about rights of nature both as a movement and a legal precedence, and I think that they can be both,” Cartwright said. “We can still use our time and energy to help right the relation in our community around us even if the law won’t recognize it.”