POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Bill to create Great Salt Lake Commissioner moves forward, non-profit calls it ‘shadowy’

Feb 22, 2023, 3:30 PM | Updated: Feb 24, 2023, 7:06 pm

great salt lake shown, a bill to preserve the lake has passed...

I-80 near the Great Salt Lake on Feb. 7, 2023. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

(Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to create a Great Salt Lake Commissioner to oversee all the agencies working on saving the lake is moving forward in the Utah Legislature.

The new commissioner, who would be appointed by the governor with the “consent” of the Senate, would also oversee a newly created Great Salt Lake Trust for lake needs, as well as new money being appropriated to it.

“This new agency is trying to help direct [12 Utah agencies working on lake needs] to the same end goal…this brings the oversight and management under one umbrella,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Shultz, R-Hooper, who is running the bill at the request of legislative leadership.

The Utah Rivers Council, a non-profit that has long opposed water diversion projects like the Bear River Development, calls the bill “shadowy” because of some of its language around public records requests.

Rivers Council objections

The bill lists circumstances when information related to the new agency is allowed to be kept private.

One circumstance is if information is part of a “judicial proceeding, administrative proceeding, or negotiation with a person concerning the claim, including a representative from another state or the federal government.”

It also allows for protections like other government entities have, like “substantial financial injury to the governmental entity or state economy.” And, information would be protected if it creates a “competitive advantage upon a potential or actual competitor of a commercial project.”

The Rivers Council argues this allows for “broad exemptions” of taxpayer money. They argue “the purpose for acquiring water rights are veiled from the public.” 

“Taxpayer dollars could be going towards buying car dealerships instead of raising the level of the Great Salt Lake,” said URC Policy Specialist Matt Berry at Wednesday’s hearing.

Protected for a reason?

Shultz pushed back on those claims. He pointed to lines in the bill that allows information to eventually be public once it’s no longer sensitive.

The bill states that if information were to “reveal a legal strategy relating to the state’s claim to the use of the water in the Great Salt Lake and harm the ability of the [GSL] commissioner to negotiate the best terms and conditions regarding the use of water, or give an advantage to another person including another state or to the federal government in negotiations regarding the use of water.”

“Without this language, you could literally have other states doing GRAMA requests to understand our goals and strategies,” said Shultz. “Or speculators on water driving up the cost [of water] or developers driving up the cost of water.”

The bill sailed through the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee and now heads to the full House.

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Bill to create Great Salt Lake Commissioner moves forward, non-profit calls it ‘shadowy’