Should the Great Salt Lake be considered a person? Group says yes, Utah bill says no

Jan 23, 2024, 8:00 PM

A sail boat on the Great Salt Lake...

A sail boat on the Great Salt Lake. (KSL TV)


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.

Hundreds rally, calling on legislature to ‘Save our Great Salt Lake’

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.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Great Salt Lake

Utah Lake water release...

Alex Cabrero

Utah Lake release sends 300 million gallons of water a day into the Great Salt Lake

The Utah Lake control gates in Saratoga Springs opened Thursday morning to release water into the Great Salt Lake.

15 days ago

(Kristin Murphy/Deseret News)
Dust lingers after OHVs drove by in West Shores, Calif., on Friday, D...

Saige Miller, KUER

Lakebed dust is a worry in Utah. For California’s Salton Sea, it’s a full-blown problem

Like the Great Salt Lake, there are toxins in the sediment of an exposed lake bed in California.

15 days ago

Great Salt Lake bed...

Mike Anderson

Dust from Great Salt Lake helps algal blooms thrive, study finds

A new study is putting a large part of the blame for algal blooms on blowing dust.

17 days ago

Sign showcasing information about the Great Sale Lake Shorelands preserve....

Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

Invasive phragmites are needlessly sucking water out of Great Salt Lake

An invasive plant species is using excessive water around the Great Salt Lake.

21 days ago

Hundreds of people are calling on the legislature to take bolder steps to protect the Great Salt La...

Brianna Chavez

Hundreds rally, calling on legislature to ‘Save our Great Salt Lake’

Hundreds of people are calling on the legislature to take bolder steps to protect the Great Salt Lake.

1 month ago

A sail boat on the Great Salt Lake...

Carter Williams,

Cox says he’s ‘very optimistic’ about Utah’s upcoming plan to save the Great Salt Lake

Utah's Great Salt Lake Commissioner said Utah is now ready to release a plan on how it will try and reverse the lake's downward trajectory.

2 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Users display warnings about the use of artificial intelligence (AI), access to malicious software ...

Les Olson

How to Stay Safe from Cybersecurity Threats

Read our tips for reading for how to respond to rising cybersecurity threats in 2023 and beyond to keep yourself and your company safe.

Should the Great Salt Lake be considered a person? Group says yes, Utah bill says no