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Beyond the story: Great Salt Lake in the New York Times

Who in Utah did not read or hear about the big New York Times story that dropped on June 7, “As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up, Utah Faces an Environmental ‘Nuclear Bomb”? As a writer and professor of environmental writing, I was intrigued by the way Christopher Flavelle pulled off such a feat, so together with the members of my Investigative Environmental Writing class, we discussed how Flavelle focused the eyes of the world on the catastrophic local, global, ecological, social and economic consequences of losing the drought-stricken Great Salt Lake, and whether or not this work of journalism—however clear, objective, accurate and well-received—might have done more to teach and thereby move the conversation forward into the new, more constructive territory.

Although by some estimates the article is too conservative in its treatment of the issue, it teaches us about the Great Salt Lake’s importance and the challenges of communicating that importance to audiences that may or may not prioritize the environment. But it also raises some troubling questions about Utah’s inability or unwillingness to do the difficult work ahead. And where there are troubling questions, troubling answers aren’t far behind. How, then, does the article accomplish its objectives?  How can it be conservative in its treatment and still suggest why Utah is unwilling to act? The short answer is staging, a term that refers to how writers use various rhetorical strategies—omission, foregrounding and backgrounding—to imply (rather than to explicitly address) what we are really up against as we attempt to prevent this mega-disaster from worsening.

One of the article’s most notable examples of staging is its use of locally sourced sources. Major contributors include state lawmakers/ranchers, scientists/professors and a state water official.  We can tell a lot about a piece of journalism by who is quoted in it, including its interest in fairness, truth, and reality. Notwithstanding the absence of more emphatic contributions from members of the environmental community (not to mention Democrat lawmakers), Flavelle’s table is equally set. Early in the article, we hear from Joel Ferry, a former Republican state lawmaker (now he is the head of the Department of Natural Resources) who farms and ranches on the north side of the lake, “We have this potential environmental nuclear bomb that’s going to go off if we don’t take some pretty dramatic action.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about this moment in the article is not Ferry’s nuclear bomb metaphor (though it is memorable), but that he is a Republican lawmaker/rancher—not a Democrat—who is on the record for advocating for the environment vis a vis the Great Salt Lake. Ferry has sponsored several bills involving water use, among other things, but history—including Ferry’s own—shows that Utah Republicans aren’t usually associated with environmental welfare beyond how it affects agriculture and other traditionally Republican platforms. Another reason the quotation stands out, and why it might surprise, mollify, or potentially mislead those who are skeptical of the Republican Party’s commitment to saving the Great Salt Lake, is that it possesses an emotional gravitas we do not often hear from the state legislature. But as the article also suggests by noting state leaders’ reluctance to “threaten the region’s breakneck population growth and high-value agriculture,” emotions are only as valuable as the actions they inspire.

Readers of the NYT could possibly interpret Ferry’s comment as evidence that not all red states are divided when it comes to protecting the environment, but there is no denying that Ferry’s inclusion in and contribution to the article provides some hope that Utah politicians can set aside their differences in the interest of the environmental good. Unfortunately, Christopher Flavelle doesn’t get to that in the article. For although Ferry rightly notes that “drastic changes” need to be made, and we, in turn, rightly expect some explicit discussion of those changes, he gives no indication of what these changes might actually involve.

Why bother making (or, in the case of Flavelle, including) such an evocative and promising statement in one breath only to abandon it in the next? Did it not occur to Flavelle, a seasoned reporter, to ask Ferry to kindly articulate these changes? Or is it that Ferry, despite his unbridled pathos, is simply unwilling to publicize them? Whatever the answer, we are left to wonder what this omission—this backgrounding in the extreme—suggests about the Utah government’s commitment to preventing what by all accounts promises to be one of the most catastrophic events in Utah’s modern history.

A similar disconnect occurs a couple of paragraphs later, when Timothy D. Hawkes, another Republican lawmaker, sounds his own alarm. According to Flavelle, Hawkes “wants more aggressive action” lest the Great Salt Lake suffer “the same fate as California’s Owens Lake, which went dry decades ago, producing the worst levels of dust pollution in the United States and helping to turn the nearby community into a veritable ghost town.”

Although Ferry and Hawkes earned “Ds” and “Fs” on the Sustainable Future section of their Progress Reports for the last three or four years, they each earned an “A+” for the same section in 2022.  This sudden change in status is likely due, in part, to their recent “Yes” votes on House Bills 410 and 429, which together appropriate $45,000,000.00 to “enhance water flows, improve water quality, conserve upstream habitats, and restore wetlands and habitats, among other objectives” (HB 410), and to “develop the Great Salt Lake Watershed Integrated Water Assessment looking at the current state of water resources in the Great Salt Lake Watershed and long-term trends of water supply, demands and other factors impacting those water resources” (HB 429).

Both bills surely have their merits, but are these bills examples of the so-called “aggressive actions” alluded to by both Ferry and Hawkes? It’s impossible to say because neither representative refers to them as such or, indeed, to anything that might be done to actually address this crisis, an omission that is all the more puzzling given Hawkes’ assurance that his call for “aggressive actions” is “not just fear-mongering, [. . . ] It can actually happen.” Readers might reasonably take Flavelle to task for this oversight, for not chasing the story a sentence or two further, but common sense suggests that if Hawkes had in fact identified the actions, Flavelle likely would have included them. Regardless of who bears the responsibility for these omissions, they cast serious doubt about the article’s value, that is, beyond its appearance of having value.

Incidentally, it’s also here that the nuclear bomb metaphor ceases to accurately describe, and may actually mislead readers about, the crisis at the Great Salt Lake. Both Ferry and Hawkes’ comments suggest that a day will come when the bomb finally detonates if we don’t do something (that is, it’s “potential,” something that “could happen”), but in fact, the bomb has already detonated and what we are witnessing now is comparatively subtle, though no less devastating collapse of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. The question is whether or not the lake has passed its ecological threshold, or the point at which the ecosystem is so degraded it could take centuries to recover. If Ferry wishes to augur the lake’s demise by comparing it to a nuclear bomb, then the bomb has been detonating in excruciatingly slow motion for decades.

Given the magnitude of the calamity facing the Great Salt Lake and those of us who live (and who hope to live!) in the Salt Lake Valley, one quickly begins to understand why Flavelle singled out—that is, foregrounded—overpopulation and climate change as the main drivers of the lake’s demise. But by only mentioning them in passing, Flavelle again undermines the article’s value, the seriousness of the issue, and the role that Utahans can still play in averting disaster. Flavelle’s relative silence on this front is rivaled only by his sources: He at least gives these issues lip service; his sources don’t even give it that. Maybe that’s by design, and how Flavelle still manages to say without meaning to. My student, Gabe Brown, a biology major specializing in evolution, ecology and environment, summed it up this way, “No matter how factual we think we are being, we must acknowledge that we are constantly being influenced by our own personal biases and patterns of thinking. The challenge is not to make ourselves unbiased machines, but rather to become increasingly aware of how our own, as well as others’, biases are constantly affecting the way we view and interpret the world around us.”

Whatever Flavelle’s intentions, perhaps he, not wishing to risk charges of religious bigotry, can be forgiven for failing to confront the elephant in the room by examining how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other faith traditions are exacerbating the effects of climate change with their emphasis on having ultra-large families that require ultra-large quantities of resources to sustain. But let’s be honest: no serious discussion of this issue is possible without it.

Overpopulation isn’t the only elephant in Flavelle’s article, however. Alexa Oldham, a second-year environmental and sustainability studies and political science student in my Investigative Environmental Writing class, said, “I find it peculiar that the article mentions that Joel Ferry—a rancher—is concerned about climate change and its impacts on the Great Salt Lake, but chose to omit the fact that over 80 percent of Utah’s water is being allocated for agriculture.” Dash Robertson, a senior in environmental and sustainability studies, agreed and then added, “Despite only making up 2.7 percent of the state’s GDP. From what I’ve read, this is largely due to the ‘use it or lose it’ system which bases farmers’ future water allotments on how much they use that year, effectively incentivizing them to maintain their water use even if they don’t need it.”

However well-intentioned, Flavelle’s article and House Bills 410 and 429 have this in common, they kick the can down the road. House Bill 429, though it is ostensibly designed to improve conditions on the ground, is another multi-million dollar boondoggle whose purpose is to “look at” the current status of water resources in the state, that is, to tell us what we already know. Ferry and Hawkes’ inability or unwillingness to articulate what really needs to be done, together with their support for bills that don’t name and address the underlying causes of Great Salt Lake’s deterioration, impedes progress on this front and at the same time gives credence to their reputation for being “development politicians” from whom the people of Utah can expect no meaningful, long-term environmental action. How this part of the story escaped Flavelle and the NYT’s notice is anyone’s guess, but its omission is a loss and disservice to us all.

In fairness to Ferry and Hawkes, they are not alone in their refusal to face the fact that if we do not address climate change and overpopulation, which lie at the heart of essentially all environmental ills, there will be hell to pay. Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City’s public utilities department, offered three “solutions” of her own, not for saving the Great Salt Lake, but for ensuring we have water for Utah’s unchecked population for the next 20 years, at which point we will have exceeded supply. They include diverting more water from rivers and streams, recycling more wastewater, and/or drawing more groundwater from wells. Briefer is in a tough position, to be sure, and it must be difficult to address such a complex problem with so little support and with as many moving parts as this one. But as the current water crisis already shows, these are not solutions: They are stall tactics at worst and mitigation efforts at best that merely delay the inevitable and, with the exception perhaps of recycling wastewater, promise to accelerate the problem and make the situation worse.

Christopher Flavelle’s NYT article deserves praise for spotlighting this issue, but it also feels like a missed opportunity to really educate readers on the depth of this crisis and what is preventing us from resolving it. Thus, it invites us to ask what responsibility we all have for telling stories that transcend the idiosyncrasies of the tribe, and instead advocate for the unconditional and unimpeded protection of the earth. Unfortunately, when it comes to parsing complexity and discussing difficult truths, courage is in short supply. The Great Salt Lake is one of the most famous lakes in the world, but it is also a symbol, not only of other lakes that are on the brink of collapse but of all the ways we have either pushed the natural world to the brink or destroyed it outright. It deserves better.