SALT LAKE CITY — Saving the Great Salt Lake will be his "top priority" in office, the new head of Utah's Department of Natural Resources said at his Senate confirmation hearing on Friday.
"Right now, the Great Salt Lake is priority number one," Joel Ferry said. "We’re at record low levels and the impacts to our state long-term are significant and severe if we don’t really make the effort to turn that around."
In an interview with FOX 13 News following the hearing, Ferry said he would also like to see a new study conducted on the need for the Bear River Development Project. He acknowledged the last time it was looked at was in the 1990s, when the state had much more water than it does now and "we made some assumptions in the ‘90s about what water would be available."
"I would like to see an updated study and a re-look at what is available and then look at what our population projections are," Ferry said. "Because the needs were based on gallons per capita day of what we were using then."
Environmentalists have opposed the Bear River project for years, arguing that it would steal water that could go to the Great Salt Lake. The lake has hit a record low and presents a significant environmental and economic crisis for the state with diminished snowpack, toxic dust and impacts to industry and wildlife around the lake.
"That’s precisely why I supported him today," said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, who made the motion to confirm Ferry as head of DNR.
"I think Mr. Ferry is not only a great, qualified fit for the job, he understands the legislative process. He gets the politics of water in this community and I think he’s absolutely right. The study that was commissioned and produced in 1992 no longer meets the needs of the state of Utah. So I think it’s high time we do have a new study with fair questions that look at the reality of water going forward and not backward."
Water was the primary topic at the hearing for Ferry, a farmer and state lawmaker from Corinne who was nominated by Governor Spencer Cox to lead the agency that is primarily dealing with the statewide response to the mega-drought and the dramatically shrinking Great Salt Lake.
"We’ve got to start thinking outside the box on all these issues," said Ferry. "Things are different today than they were 40, 50 years ago. So we have to be responsive to that."
Ferry called for more conservation and acknowledged Utahns may have to make further sacrifices as the state continues to grow. He said he wants to see the agency increase support for turf buy-back programs and Utahns may not be able to have as much non-functional lawns in the future and have more drought-tolerant landscapes.
"To look at agriculture and say this is the limit, there’s only so much water," Ferry said. "We need to be conserving. We need to be planting crops that are more appropriate for our environment."
Ferry said data showed that Utahns are responding statewide and increasing the amount of water they are conserving. It has helped stretch reservoir resources.
"We started out 15% lower and yet we’ve made up the gap because of our conservation message," he said.
But what the future of conservation looks like may be different in each part of the state. He pointed to Washington County communities passing some strict ordinances on landscaping and water use.
"Everywhere is unique. What happens in Washington County is different than what happens in Cache County," he said. "Across the state we’re experiencing these drought conditions and we’re in this together. As a society and as a people, we all need to do our part."
On his own farm, Ferry told the committee that he has installed more than 100,000 feet of irrigation pipe to save water and get more into the Bear River wetlands and the Great Salt Lake.
The Utah Democratic Party has threatened to sue the state over Ferry continuing to serve in the House of Representatives while simultaneously serving as acting director of DNR. They claim it violates the state constitution. Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson declined the party's demands to kick him off the November ballot.
With his confirmation vote, Ferry said he would resign from the legislature.
"We’re glad that Joel Ferry has finally decided to resign his position in the legislature after months of unconstitutionally serving in two branches of government. But now that it’s even clearer that he has no intention to serve the people of his district if re-elected, he should immediately remove himself from the election. His presence on the ballot does a disservice to the people of District 1 by attempting to put the selection of a new representative in the hands of a small number of party loyalists. If he continues to refuse to remove himself from the ballot, we will move forward with legal action to have him removed," the party said in a statement.
No one spoke against his confirmation at Friday's hearing. Senate Democrats fully supported his confirmation and he was approved unanimously.
"He's a listener, he's a collaborative person," said Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay. "I just really enjoyed working with him."
Senate Republicans also offered praise.
"I think it’s going to be important to think outside the box," said committee chair Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton. "I know you will do that especially in our water, our water resources and how we’re going to conquer this problem that we’ve got."
The full Senate will vote on his confirmation next month.
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.