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Utah State Legislature turns focus to water conservation, Great Salt Lake

Posted at 5:29 PM, Jan 30, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — It's "Water Week" in the Utah State Legislature.

House and Senate leaders unveiled a series of bills and funding initiatives centered around water conservation and saving the Great Salt Lake.

"This session, we’ll be making another historic investment in water conservation efforts, development and infrastructure," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said at a news conference Monday.

Dozens of bills are being filed in the legislature. They are being brought forward in a bipartisan fashion. They include:

  • Increasing turf buyback incentives
  • Changing measurement systems to include per capita consumptive use of water
  • Instream flow bills to ensure water gets to the Great Salt Lake
  • "Utah Water Ways," a new public service campaign to get people to understand the need to conserve
  • A bill focusing on water re-use in southern Utah
  • A bill to create a centralized authority to oversee the Great Salt Lake

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, is personally running the bill to create a Great Salt Lake Authority. He said it would coordinate with state agencies, environmental groups and other stakeholders to make decisions about the lake and ways to save it.

"Not just save it, but have a healthy vibrant lake," Speaker Wilson told FOX 13 News, adding: "Right now, it’s hard for me even as Speaker of the House to sometimes know who to go to get answers for the Great Salt Lake. Also to know who’s responsible to execute this."

The Great Salt Lake is at its lowest point in recorded history as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate. The lake's decline presents an ecological and economic catastrophe for northern Utah. The lake helps generate snowpack, provides more than $1 billion in economic impact and refuge for millions of birds. The exposed lake bed has toxins in it that can harm public health.

While winter storms have helped add a foot of new water into the lake, political leaders warn we are still facing drought and a shrinking lake.

"That’s not enough to fix our trouble," said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek. "We’re not going to coast on one wet winter. We’re grateful for it, but that’s not the end of the work."

The most significant portion of the legislature's work on water conservation and the Great Salt Lake will involve funding. Speaker Wilson told FOX 13 News it was his desire to see more than $600 million spent on the issues.

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, has proposed a bill to increase the amount of incentives to get people to ditch "nonfunctional turf." That's lawn that people don't really use. The bill would offer money and have local water districts match it for turf buyback programs.

"People understand how precious water is and we get water savings as we do it. So therefore, we’re willing to double that amount," Sen. Sandall said.

The state's largest water user is agriculture, so lawmakers are proposing to spend at least $200 million on "agriculture optimization." That is offering grants to farmers to pay for new technology that uses less water on crops. Farmers have reported 30% savings instantly with the new tech. Those savings could help a lot of places with water, said Wade Garrett with the Utah Farm Bureau.

"We're working hard to use the water as best we can. I mean that's important to agriculture," he said. "This money helps us to continue to that."

The bills being introduced can make a significant impact, said Brian Steed, the former Utah Department of Natural Resources director who now oversees Utah State University's Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air.

"I think we’re seeing the state make big leaps forward in how we address water and how we plan for water shortages in the future," he said.

The bills will start to be filed and run this week.

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.