ENVIRONMENT

Utah lawmakers plan to reevaluate water rights held by mineral companies on the Great Salt Lake

Aug 23, 2023, 4:52 PM | Updated: Aug 24, 2023, 2:24 pm

Water levels are pictured in the Great Salt Lake -- SALT LAKE CITY--- The Utah Division of Forestry...

FILE: Water levels are pictured in the Great Salt Lake on Thursday, July 20, 2023. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

(Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

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 and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

SALT LAKE CITY —  In the coming months, Utah lawmakers will likely take another look at the annual water rights held by mineral companies along the Great Salt Lake.

Utah House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told KSL Newsradio he plans to introduce legislation aimed at these companies’ water rights contracts. He said that many of the contracts haven’t been reexamined since they were written.

“The contracts … are decades and decades old,” Schultz said. “Some of them date back to the 1960s.”

The Great Salt Lake ecosystem and how it’s publicly viewed have changed a lot since then. The lake hit an all-time record low in November 2022 due to drought, climate change, and water diversions.

The lake came up about five and a half feet after the record winter, but experts say the lake still needs to make up another five feet to reach what’s considered healthy levels.

The mineral companies with water rights on the Great Salt Lake

The lake is home to a variety of metals and minerals including lithium, magnesium, sodium chloride, and other precious materials. Shultz said mineral companies rake in hundreds of millions of dollars every year removing these products, but the state only gets about $11 million per year.

Schultz’s legislation would re-examine how much money these mineral companies contribute to the state. 

Another concern for Schultz is the amount of water that mineral companies can claim a right to annually.  He uses Compass Minerals as an example. Compass is one of the largest companies operating on the lake and has rights to six times the water in Echo Reservoir each year. That’s more water than is contained in the Jordanelle Reservoir.

“If they use their full water amount, they would drop the lake six to eight inches,” Schultz said. But, to be fair, he said the company typically only uses 25%  to 75% of that amount per year.

Compass Minerals recently came under scrutiny after they were accused of conducting an unauthorized lithium extraction operation on the lake’s north arm. Schultz said they claimed they were allowed to since it was only a testing operation, and he vehemently refutes the unauthorized extraction claim.

KSL Newsradio has reached out to Compass Minerals for comment but has not yet received a response.

US Magnesium is another company that could be affected if this proposed legislation became law. The company issued the following statement to KSL Newsradio:

We don’t have details about the proposed change. But US Magnesium will continue to focus on responsible mineral extraction that takes substantial amounts of salt along with the water – contributing to healthy Great Salt Lake salinity levels.

Schultz said it’s unclear whether his legislation would affect US Magnesium.

Finding balance

While details of the legislation are still in the works, Schultz said the goal is to find a balance between the companies extracting minerals and preserving the Great Salt Lake.

“We want to have a good partnership,” Schultz said. “[But] we don’t want the state of Utah or the Great Salt Lake to be taken advantage of.”

He said the companies have been more willing to work with the state as of late. He hopes they can continue to find common ground, as officials race to save and find long-term solutions for a lake still in dire straights.

“We can find that balance, but we just need everybody to come together,” Schultz said.

Related: US Magnesium plans to challenge study naming them as major polluter

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Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

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Utah lawmakers plan to reevaluate water rights held by mineral companies on the Great Salt Lake