Mar 3, 2023 - News

Utah lawmakers water down Great Salt Lake measures

Animated illustration of a spigot with droplets of water falling.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Utah lawmakers kicked off the legislative session in January with a promise to focus on the disappearing Great Salt Lake.

  • But many aggressive policies are likely to die on the vine when the session ends at midnight Friday.

What's happening: Lawmakers say they held back on "emergency" water-saving measures because of this winter's near-record snowfall.

  • "Mother Nature really helped us out," Sen. Scott Sandall (R-Tremonton) said in a news conference on Thursday. "We didn't have to pull that lever for emergency use."

Reality check: While the snow is helping Utah's dwindling reservoirs and lakes, one winter can't replace years of low water and rising temperatures.

Killed bills: Here are some of the measures that didn't make it to the governor's desk:

  • A resolution would have set a target lake depth 8 feet higher than the current level, but Senate Republicans blocked it in committee, saying the measure would make the lake too high of a priority.
  • A proposal to use $65 million to buy up water rights around the lake didn't get scheduled for debate.
  • Golf courses won't have to publicly report their water use after House Republicans opposed the requirement, complaining it would "shame" the golf industry.
  • A ban on grass lawns in new construction was removed from pending legislation that would also provide more cash incentives for homeowners to re-landscape with drought-tolerant plants and ban HOAs from requiring more than 50% plant cover.

What passed: Lawmakers budgeted $200 million to help farmers make their irrigation systems more efficient.

  • Of note: Agriculture uses 87% of Utah's water, according to an analysis by Utah State University.
  • A Great Salt Lake Commissioner will also be appointed to coordinate the state's water conservation strategies affecting the lake.

What we're watching: Other proposals were still pending as of Thursday afternoon.

  • HB538 would ban watering lawns during the cold season — October to April. But an amendment eliminated a requirement that water districts let the saved water flow into the Great Salt Lake, as researchers recommended.
  • HB513 would require brine mining companies to pay royalties for lake water they use and stop using water if the lake gets too salty for brine shrimp and brine flies to live in the southwest part of the lake.
  • HB349 would stop communities from building systems to reuse treated water that's already gone down residents' sink and shower drains — if the used water would otherwise flow into the Great Salt Lake.

The latest: The conservation group Save Our Great Salt Lake rallied Wednesday at the Capitol, demanding more ambitious water-saving goals and restrictions on development.

This article originates from the Great Salt Lake Collaboration, a solutions journalism initiative designed to inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake. Read more here.


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