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Bills on landscaping, crops and dedicating water to Great Salt Lake to be resurrected

Posted at 4:15 PM, May 31, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — A series of bills on water conservation and the Great Salt Lake may be resurrected, including one that would ban outdoor watering during certain times of the year.

Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, who co-chairs the Utah State Legislature's bipartisan Great Salt Lake Caucus, said he intended to revisit legislation that died in the 2023 session to the frustration of environmentalists and members of the public who have been pushing lawmakers to do more to save the lake.

"We'll get the allies we need lined up ahead of time," Rep. Owens told FOX 13 News in a recent interview.

The Great Salt Lake dropped to historic low last year, alarming the public and policymakers alike. With the lake's decline over the years (as a result of diversion, drought and changing climate), there have been toxic dust storms and harms to public health, wildlife and Utah's economy.

The legislature has spent roughly $1 billion over the past two years on water conservation measures and advanced a number of bills specifically aimed at reversing the lake's declines. But not everything that was proposed passed the legislative session that ended in March. Thanks to a record snowfall this year, the lake has risen about 5 feet but is still another 5 feet below what is considered a healthy range for the ecosystem.

While he noted this year has been exceptional with a record snow pack, Rep. Owens said future years may not be so good.

Among the bills he plans to bring back: one that prohibits outdoor watering during certain times of the year. Rep. Owens originally proposed a ban from Oct. 1 to April 25 with fines for violators. The bill was watered down in committee hearings and passed the House only to die in the Senate on the final night of the legislative session.

Rep. Owens said he will bring the bill back, but wasn't sure if fines would still be a part of the conversation.

"We want people to be aware they don’t need to be watering early and late. We haven’t discussed that yet," he said of fines for violations.

But Rep. Owens said he wanted to ensure that whatever water is conserved actually makes it to the Great Salt Lake. It was a provision of the bill that was stripped out in the 2023 session.

"When we take action to conserve water? That we take that water out of the reservoir and put it in the lake," he said.

Rep. Owens said he was also contemplating reviving a $100 million request of Governor Spencer Cox — to pay farmers not to grow certain crops in times of extreme drought. The idea would not be to take water from farmers, but pay them for it to benefit the Great Salt Lake.

"We’ve got to have a mechanism in place where we can go and work with our farmers and say 'Hey, can you do without some of that water this year? We’d be happy to pay you as taxpayers and then move that water to the lake,'" he said.

Some of Rep. Owens' ideas have been backed in the past by some Republican leaders on Utah's Capitol Hill. He was still working on support for the next go-round. One environmental group said it would like to see the ideas return.

"They’re fantastic ideas," said Alex Veilleux, the policy director for HEAL Utah. "Anything we can do to get more water into the lake is going to ultimately result in safeguarding the health of Utahns along the lakeshore."

Veilleux said Rep. Owens has taken a "smart and measured approach" to getting the bills advanced.

"We’re happy to see these bills resurfacing," he said.

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.