What the Utah legislature has planned to help the Great Salt Lake

Oct 13, 2023, 6:00 AM

great salt lake shoreline...

New rules are in place to protect Great Salt Lake. (Adam Small/KSL NewsRadio)

(Adam Small/KSL NewsRadio)

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. All of the stories are available on the Great Salt Lake Collaborative website.

SALT LAKE CITY — More legislation is coming to help save the Great Salt Lake before it triggers a significant ecological crisis for Utah.

The co-chairs of the bipartisan Great Salt Lake Caucus told FOX 13 News on Thursday they intend to pursue more bills and spending in the 2024 legislative session, with a focus on ensuring water that is conserved or allocated actually makes it into the lake.

“I’m not seeing large regulatory changes, large policy shifts,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise. “But I do know that we have to make the investments necessary to ensure the water we’ve acquired, the promises we’ve made are kept.”

That has been a primary complaint of advocates for the lake and some lawmakers. While the legislature has passed significant bills and spent more than $1 billion on water conservation measures, there has yet to be a sizable amount of water getting into the Great Salt Lake. The lake itself rose 5 1/2 feet from its historic low last year thanks to a record-breaking snowpack, but it has started declining again.

The Great Salt Lake has been shrinking as a result of water diversion, drought and climate change. It has alarmed political leaders and the public alike as a dried up lake can result in toxic dust storms (arsenic is a naturally-occurring mineral in the lake), reduced snowpack, and significant impacts to public health, wildlife and Utah’s economy.

In the upcoming legislative session, Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, said he intends to resurrect a failed bill that would ban outdoor watering during “shoulder season,” typically October to May to help conserve water. He also wants to enlist agriculture producers to help.

“We’ve got to have a program in place for when the lake is drying out again, if it gets bad again, we have a mechanism in place to lease late-season water from farmers so we can add that water to the lake,” Rep. Owens, who co-chairs the Great Salt Lake Caucus, told FOX 13 News on Thursday.

But ensuring conserved water actually gets to the Great Salt Lake may require more costly infrastructure upgrades, said Rep. Snider.

“If I’m a farmer in Box Elder County and I have committed through lease to forfeit my fourth crop in exchange for monetary compensation, I need to know — and the person who has paid that money needs to be absolutely sure — that water is going to the Great Salt Lake and not to the next diversion,” he said. “We don’t have that certainty now in our water delivery systems.”

Rep. Snider told FOX 13 News he intended to seek funding for infrastructure upgrades.

On Thursday, the Utah State Legislature’s Water Development Commission heard a proposed bill from Rep. Owens to severely restrict “nonfunctional turf” from future government buildings. He is proposing to limit turf to only 20% and ban it entirely from parking strips and road medians. Rep. Owens said the legislation was designed to “lead by example.”

“We can have playgrounds, cemeteries, parks where people are using that grass,” he said. “Where they’re not using grass? Let’s limit that. Let’s use trees and shrubs to have cooling effect and not use water-intensive grass as much.”

He faced some pushback from members of the commission who complained it was unfair to demand those measures statewide.

“To make the rest of the 28 counties abide by something that’s impacting Salt Lake County isn’t fair to the rest of us,” said Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said he would prefer to see the legislation limited to large population counties or the Great Salt Lake Basin. Rep. Owens conceded to change the bill to gain support.

“I view this as mainly a water-saving measure to help the Great Salt Lake and also to have the government set an example,” he said. “I did kind of want that statewide piece. But the feedback I got is they want to limit it to the Great Salt Lake Basin and I’m happy to make that change.”

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What the Utah legislature has planned to help the Great Salt Lake