SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Brad Wilson filed a bill that allocates $40 million to efforts to protect the Great Salt Lake by getting more water into it.
"About $40 million to start with that will kind of prime the pump — no pun intended — to ensure we have some resources to get things moving," Speaker Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in an interview with FOX 13 News on Wednesday.
House Bill 410 builds off of something that environmental groups have tried — getting water rights for the Great Salt Lake. FOX 13 News reported last year that the Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy inked a deal with Rio Tinto-Kennecott to lease water rights for the lake itself, which is a first.
The lake itself doesn't have water rights because it's a terminal basin and legally any water that enters the Great Salt Lake is deemed to have no beneficial use. That's despite it being a major contributor to Utah's ecosystem and a shrinking lake has the potential to stir up toxic dust storms and kill our snowpack.
HB410 would create private-public partnerships and spend money for water rights, habitat restoration and other work to save the lake.
"We want to have water donated to the lake, we’re looking for water that can be purchased, water that can be leased or just excess water that people aren’t using at certain times during the year," said Speaker Wilson.
Lynn de Freitas, the head of the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake, praised the Speaker for the legislation.
"It's certainly timely and it's certainly a significant gesture," she told FOX 13 News on Wednesday. "A commitment on behalf of the state legislature to recognize in order for Great Salt Lake to get the water it needs, clearly it’s going to cost."
She said combined with other water conservation and Great Salt Lake bills in the legislature, the Speaker's political will is helping to protect the lake.
"With the extreme drought, with climate change, with the impacts that we have created collectively on Great Salt Lake’s decline, the measures we have to employ need to be integrated," said de Freitas. "It’s not just having money to buy water rights. We need to improve our practice in the way we regard and use our limited water resources."
But the Utah Rivers Council criticized the bill as not going far enough, pointing out any water rights granted to the lake are temporary.
"The Great Salt Lake needs 2 million acre-feet of water and its own legally protected water rights,” said the council's executive director Zach Frankel in a statement. "Without a plan to ensure the permanent protection of the lake’s water, the lake will continue to drop in the face of shrinking snowpacks and new water diversions."
Speaker Wilson said his bill is "a start."
"Everyone is onboard with doing what we need to do preserve, protect and enhance the Great Salt Lake," he said.
The Speaker, one of the most powerful political leaders in Utah, has been pushing lawmakers to support bills to preserve and protect the lake. On Tuesday, FOX 13 News reported the Utah National Guard flew lawmakers over portions of the Great Salt Lake to give them a bird's-eye view.
The bill has already won support in the Utah State Senate.
"I think it’s a good start," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters. "I don’t think it will probably be enough, but I honestly believe $40 million is a good number and we have to start somewhere."
Speaker Wilson told FOX 13 News he plans further legislation next year.
"We’ll build on this next year and the year after," he said.