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Saving Great Salt Lake Gets a Boost in Utah State Legislature

Author: Samantha Hawkins

Hawkins, Samantha. Saving Great Salt Lake Gets a Boost in Utah State Legislature.

At the close of the 2023 Utah legislative session, lawmakers say they made big strides to save the Great Salt Lake—which is at risk of drying up and becoming a bowl of toxic dust that could poison the air around Salt Lake City.

“There’s a strong bipartisan commitment to make sure the lake stays alive and healthy,” Rep. Doug Owens (D), co-chair of the recently formed Great Salt Lake Caucus, said about the session that ended March 3. “I think the public should take heart from what happened. And there’s a lot of good will to make sure we do more next year.”

Perhaps the most significant passed legislation was a bill to appoint a Great Salt Lake commissioner to coordinate state efforts and create a strategic plan for the lake—accompanied by $40 million for conservation efforts. The state will additional create a public-private partnership called “Utah Water Ways” that will address the state’s water usage through another bill.

Overall, lawmakers allocated nearly $500 million for state water conservation efforts, including $200 million for agricultural water optimization—agriculture makes up more than 70% of Utah’s water use.

The legislature also cleared bills that will create an emergency trigger allowing regulators to halt mineral extraction when the lake’s salinity reaches an unsafe level, increase turf buyback incentives, crack down on water-wasting landscaping, and calculate the water that residents consume per capita.

Lawmakers also approved a bill restricting water reuse in future developments in northern Utah—used water is some of the only guaranteed flow into the Great Salt Lake, and water recycling could drop the lake by another 10 feet or more.

Gov. Spencer Cox (R) has 60 days from the end of the session to sign the bills, veto them, or allow them to become law without his signature. Cox, who has been an advocate for conserving the lake, is expected to sign the bills. His office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘Major Strides’?

“We made some major strides this year and had some big policy shifts,” Rep. Casey Snider (R), a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said. “All in all it was a good year for the Great Salt Lake.”

Yet the efforts didn’t satisfy advocates, who had called on lawmakers to overhaul the state’s water laws and take emergency actions to fill the lake.

“They were certainly talking a pretty big game at the beginning of the session,” Alex Veilleux from the group Save Our Great Salt Lake said. “But what really happened was just kicking the can down the road.”

Bills that would have set a goal to raise the lake’s water levels, required golf courses to disclose how much water they are using, and diverted $65 million a year from Lake Powell and Bear River development projects to acquire water rights for the Great Salt Lake never made it out of committee. A bill that would have banned the outdoor watering of lawns in northern Utah from Oct. 1 to April 25 passed the House but failed in the Senate.

Photo Illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte/Bloomberg Law; Photos: NASA

Owens said that his lawn watering bill died after lawmakers decided that it was “too much regulation for too little benefit.” He says he has plans to bring it back next year after tweaking it to get water districts on board.

“It’s hard to know how much more needs to be done, but there seems to be a lot of progress,” Owens said. “With nature helping out this year, we will have more time to pass solutions.”

The legislature meets from January to March each year for a 45-day session.


Utah had an above average year for snow, which Veilleux said gave lawmakers an excuse to not pass needed emergency action—as the snowpack is helpful in raising the lake’s water levels.

“They are unfortunately attributing this good snow year to not needing to do anything about the lake,” Veilleux said, noting that the snowpack will only account for a small fraction of water that the lake needs to get up to a safe level.

Cox requested funding for short-term water leasing that would have put water directly into the lake, which lawmakers rejected—in part because of the snowpack.

Even though lawmakers rejected the governor’s proposal, Owens says they haven’t slowed down their efforts to find long-term solutions.

“I don’t feel like the legislature took their foot off the gas for long term help to the lake,” Owens said. “There was a lot accomplished and more will be done.”

DMU Timestamp: March 17, 2023 08:51

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