Photos by Chandler Rosenberg
Today, youth activists from Utah Youth Environmental Solutions (UYES) and around 100 community members came together on the shores of the Great Salt Lake to protest state leaders’ failure to take meaningful action and restore the lake to 4,198 feet above sea level, which scientists agree is the minimum ecologically viable elevation for the Great Salt Lake.
Protestors gathered on the lakebed next to the Great Saltair to experience powerful poetry written and performed by a local investigative poet, Milo, whose work mourns and celebrates the fading life of the Great Salt Lake.
Led by youth, protestors marched across the dry lakebed, past the bodies of dead birds, and toward the water, chanting “4,198: act before it’s too late," and “4,198: do your job, legislate.”
As they neared the water, protesters approached a giant clock, hand painted with an image of a vibrant, healthy lake turning to dust.
The clock was numbered with important years in the Great Salt Lake’s future: 2023, 2027, 2030, and 2040. At each of these intervals, speakers described the progression of a future without the Great Salt Lake. From arsenic-laden dust storms to the extinction of unique species, the youth organizers spoke of their personal connections to this crisis and how they will be affected if the lake disappears.
As the clock struck 2027, 15-year-old Adalayde Scott stepped forward and made a speech imagining what her life would be like that year and mourning the losses she would endure if state leaders fail to take action today. “Instead of returning with a mask to fight dust and to a lake empty of birds who once vitalized it, I hope that the birds return with me for their summer of breeding. But they cannot do so if we continue to ignore this crisis,” she said.
As the clock struck 2030–the year scientists predict the Great Salt Lake ecosystem will collapse if legislative inaction continues–14-year-old Sam Grossman spoke about the consequences of its disappearance. “Lives would be lost from the unhealthy air and millions of birds and other wildlife who depend on the lake to survive would perish,” Sam said. “This is the dire future we could face if nothing changes.”
Autumn Featherstone spoke as the clock struck 2040, a year when the Great Salt Lake is likely to resemble more of a dust bowl than a body of water. Imagining life in 2040, Autumn said: “the legislators who brought us here packed up and left the second the dust storms began, leaving the rest of us here, trapped, dealing with the consequences of their actions.”
Topaz Henderson rewinded the clock to 2023, reminding listeners that, while the situation is urgent, there is still time in the present to save the future. “I think about this imminent reality, one that I shouldn’t even have to be worried about in the first place, and it makes me angry. I am angry at the people who are supposed to be our leaders: the lawmakers and politicians who continuously fail us and our lake, again and again. You’ve just seen what will happen if the lake dries up but there is still time to save our future. We need to act NOW.”
The Great Salt Lake is on the brink of ecological collapse. The lake’s water level is much lower than it needs to be because of water diversions for agriculture and industry, urban expansion, and climate change. This year’s snowfall was only a temporary solution to record-low water levels, and as the lake continues to recede, public health and biodiversity are increasingly threatened. Along with brine shrimp and many species of migratory birds, several industries rely on the lake’s myriad of resources. Additionally, as the crust under the lake is increasingly exposed, dust storms laden with toxins such as arsenic and mercury pose a serious threat to public health. Research shows that within the next decade, all of these factors are bound for catastrophe unless the lake can be restored to its minimum sustainable level: 4,198 feet above sea level.
Keynote speaker Alan Gutierrez, a 24-year-old UYES organizer, took the sandy stage as protestors chanted “4,198: act before it’s too late.” “We have witnessed the failures and neglectful actions from leaders for generations,” said Alan. “This is why, now more than ever, it is important to remember the significance of community and how liberation always begins there.”
Today, a community of young people and their allies came together to make a haunting statement that unless we take action today, we jeopardize the future of millions of people. Youth have made it clear that restoring the lake to its minimum healthy level of 4,198 feet above sea level is the only acceptable solution to this crisis. Lip service and empty promises are an insult to the commitment and dedication of the young people who are fighting hard for their futures. Youth ideas and priorities have been continually disregarded in favor of false solutions that emphasize profit over the lives of future generations. They call on their legislators to take immediate and decisive action to ensure justice for all communities in the Salt Lake Valley.
“I think one of the most essential things to remember is that the power to legislate is not in the hands of youth. These are our pleas for justice, for an equitable future and if you will not let us vote, then it is absolutely your responsibility as adults and as government officials to hear us.” -Adalayde Scott, age 15
“The people making decisions about our future are the ones who will be least affected by them. They will be able to move away as the rest of us are left behind, dealing with the consequences of their actions.” - Topaz Henderson, age 18
“We’re calling on you out of necessity for our lives, and if you truly care about our futures then you will hear us and make no excuses.” -Poppy Chamberlain, age 17
“Inaction is the root of violence against the people and the land. This demonstration is not the end. We need sustained resistance that centers frontline communities of color.” - Muskan Walia, UYES, age 21
“While my connection to the lake is multifaceted, from climate anxiety to how arsenic-laced air would affect my lungs, what will bring me back to this lake time and time again is the beauty and complexity of its terminal ecosystem,” -Adalayde Scott, age 15
Utah Youth Environmental Solutions Network (UYES) is a youth-led organization that empowers young people in Utah to mobilize around climate and environmental issues through legislation, education and action. Our mission is to connect students to environmental advocacy by cultivating reciprocal relationships between Utah’s youth, environmental organizations, and community leaders.