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Utah lawmakers urged to do more — and faster — to save the Great Salt Lake

Posted at 4:44 PM, Feb 21, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — Suzanne Liese wanted to talk to her lawmakers.

"I'm here to talk to my representatives about my concerns for the Great Salt Lake," she said as she waited patiently outside the House chamber for representatives to step out and chat with her between votes.

Liese was on Utah's Capitol Hill on Tuesday for the environmental group Save Our Great Salt Lake's event teaching people how to lobby lawmakers.

"Last year was supposedly the year of water," Liese said. "Here, a couple of weeks ago, was the week of water. Yet we have not seen any substantive legislation pass that’s going to get water into the lake immediately."

Save Our Great Salt Lake has been pushing lawmakers to do more — and act quickly — to get water into the lake. At times, they have expressed frustration that some bills haven't passed that they believe would benefit the lake.

"The public cares about this, we're worried about the Great Salt Lake and we’ve not seen the response that matches the urgency of the crisis," said Chandler Rosenberg, one of the group's organizers.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who co-chairs the legislature's Great Salt Lake Caucus, said he understands the concerns.

"We have been making promises all session that we’re going to take the Great Salt Lake seriously. We did a lot last session. We’re continuing to do a lot more," he said in an interview with FOX 13 News, adding that a series of bills and funding measures have been proposed that will help the lake.

The Great Salt Lake is at a historic low as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate. Lawmakers are keenly aware of the ecological threat of toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and harms to wildlife, public health and Utah's economy. A number of bills centered around water conservation and funding requests have been introduced in the legislative session to respond to the crisis. A "strike team" created to advise lawmakers and state agencies has made recommendations including ensuring conserved water gets into the lake.

On Tuesday, Rep. Snider introduced House Bill 513 that would impact the lake in a number of ways. It requires mineral extraction companies who use the lake to pay royalties and a severance tax to a fund for the lake; forces those companies to minimize evaporation or water use and provide water back into the Great Salt Lake; and authorizes state agencies to take measures when the lake hits certain ecological thresholds.

"There are measures in that bill that help identify what we need to do going forward as the lake hits critical thresholds," Rep. Snider said. "It’s talking about management berms as necessary, the important ecological functions in the lake."

Rep. Snider's bill initially had support from one environmental group.

"As I see it, this bill is an important first step in giving the Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands the opportunity to get ahead of the curve," said Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake, adding: "This gives the division the responsibility, the authority, the initiative to oversee how best to manage, on behalf of the system, with limitations of elevation and salinity concentrations."

De Freitas said she remained hopeful that more water would get into the lake through that multi-million dollar trust the legislature set up. Lawmakers gave $40 million to the Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy to specifically buy or lease water rights for the lake itself. The legislature is poised to add millions more to that fund this year.

"Things take time and time is running out on behalf of Great Salt Lake, but i’m heartened by the fact that the water trust will be up and running short time," de Freitas said.

Rep. Snider said a bill creating a centralized authority over the Great Salt Lake will help with that. That bill, being run by House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is scheduled to be heard in a House committee on Wednesday.

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.