Great Salt Lake legislative update: Jan. 25, 2024


Jan 25, 2024 | GSL Project | Brigham Daniels | Beth Parker

By Beth Parker and Brig Daniels and Great Salt Lake Policy Accelerator students

Great Salt Lake desert at Bonneville Salt Flats in summerThe Great Salt Lake Project: Great Salt Lake Policy Accelerator
University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

Weekly overview in a nutshell

In each week’s report, we will identify the most impactful bills (favorable or unfavorable) that could significantly affect Great Salt Lake. See below for a more in-depth discussion on each of these bills.

  • S.B. 18: One of the most important bills currently proposed that would positively impact Great Salt Lake was advanced from a Senate committee and will be considered by the Senate. This bill could help get more of the water that Utah has paid to save through conservation to Great Salt Lake.
  • H.B. 280: This bill would change the way the state prioritizes water projects, taking away local control and subjecting it to more political and centralized state control. It currently is in committee and has not moved much this week.
  • H.B. 11: This bill requires state and local governments to use water-efficient landscaping and has advanced through the House and will next make its way to the Senate.
  • S.B. 118: This bill encourages water conservation in new development projects. It was scheduled for hearing this week, but it was not heard in committee.
  • H.B. 61 and S.B. 77: These bills will give the state more ability to track whether conserved water makes it to the Great Salt Lake. Both of these bills advanced through one chamber of the legislature and await the other legislative body to take up each of these bills.

Background on Utah’s legislative process

Before providing this week’s update, here is what you need to know about Utah’s legislative process. There are some quirks that should be understood.

  • While there is a lot of prep work and drafting ahead of time before a bill becomes public, the process formally begins once a bill is numbered. See a listing of bills before the legislature with a few different ways to sort through them.
  • Once a bill is numbered, it goes through the appropriate chamber’s rules committee and is sent to a legislative committee. Committee hearings are often the easiest way for members of the community to comment on a bill; however, an email to one’s own representative or bill sponsor civilly expressing an opinion about a bill is also an effective method. The legislature created this tool to help you find your legislators.
  • Once numbered, the bill will be read three times by the House and the Senate beginning in the chamber where the bill begins—labeled “H.B.” for bills that begin in the House and “S.B.” for bills that begin in the Senate. Each reading provides opportunities for revisions. As a bill progresses, the readings of the bill do likewise.
  • In the Senate, each bill must pass two separate floor votes, at least 24 hours apart, to pass out of the chamber.
  • In the House, a bill only requires a single floor vote.
  • To become law, after passing through each chamber, the bill requires the governor’s signature. Alternatively, if a bill is vetoed by the governor, the legislature can override it by a two-thirds majority.

New bills we are watching

Here we introduce and begin to track additional bills that we believe will either positively or negatively impact Great Salt Lake. We also track other water-related bills that might be of interest. In Part IV, we discuss bills that we have already addressed in previous reports.

Bills with positive impacts on Great Salt Lake (listed in order of priority)

  • S.B. 118: Water-Efficiency Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Michael K. McKell): This bill follows other bills from current and previous legislative sessions to encourage water conservation in new development projects. It allows the Division of Water Resources to award water conservancy districts grants to fund developer landscaping incentive programs. These incentives are for developers that install water-efficient landscaping instead of lawn or turf on new projects. Developers receiving grants must also use drip irrigation if irrigation is necessary, and landowners must maintain the water-efficient landscaping. Water-efficient development is an important policy, but any conserved water must be able to be shepherded to Great Salt Lake for this bill to positively impact the lake.
    • Update: This bill was scheduled to be discussed during the Jan. 23, 2024, meeting of the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee Hearing, but was postponed due to a scheduling conflict, and therefore not considered. The committee meeting suggested that there was enough support that it would eventually recommend the bill.

Bills with negative impacts on Great Salt Lake (listed in order of priority)

  • None added this week.

Other bills of interest (listed in order of priority)

  • S.B. 125: Secondary Water Amendments (sponsored by Sen. David P. Hinkins): This bill amends past water meter regulation and potentially for the worse. The current statute requires secondary water suppliers to meter pressurized water use for new and existing commercial, industrial, institutional, and residential water services and users. Scientists agree that water metering in the Great Salt Lake Basin is needed to track water use and conservation, but this bill increases the number of suppliers who would be exempt from having to meter. Currently, only secondary water suppliers with less than 1,000 users are exempt from requirements, but this bill would expand that to suppliers with less than 2,500 users. This bill would most likely only impact rural, sparsely populated areas.
    • Update: During its meeting on Jan. 23, 2024, the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee discussed modifications to the exemption, with Senator Sandall suggesting changing the limit for the exemption to areas outside of the Great Salt Lake Basin. The Utah Rivers Council spoke out against the bill during the committee hearing. Ultimately, the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee unanimously recommended this bill. It still may be amended to conform with Senator Sandall’s suggestion as it moves through the process.
    • In the news: Ben Winslow, a reporter for Fox 13 News, described S.B. 125 as a bill “which would carve out some small, rural water districts from being forced to implement secondary water metering.” He noted that S.B. 125 proved to be contentious and that “[t]he bill passed out of committee on the promise that it would be modified,” including changes that would “explicitly keep the Great Salt Lake Basin metered.”
  • H.B. 249: Utah Legal Personhood Amendment (sponsored by Rep. Walt Brooks): Environmental litigants have tried to convince courts to enlarge the standing of entities that can bring litigation on their own behalf, traditionally limited in the United States to people and organizations (e.g., governments, nonprofits, or corporations). Particularly outside of the United States but also in sister states, courts have considered whether such a legal status (frequently referred to as “personhood”) might include natural objects, such as bodies of water (like Great Salt Lake), landscapes, the atmosphere, plants, and animals. This bill attempts to block future legal development for recognition of personhood in natural objects, including “a body of water.” We do not believe that such development in Utah law is likely regardless of the outcome of this bill.
    • Update: This bill has passed its second reading in the House. On Jan. 23, 2024, this bill received a favorable recommendation from the House Business and Labor Committee (House committee vote: 13-1-2).
    • In the news: The podcast City Cast Salt Lake describes H.B. 249 as a bill that aims to undermine efforts to restore Great Salt Lake. Ben Winslow, a reporter for Fox 13 News, describes H.B. 249 as a bill “blocking entities like the Great Salt Lake from being granted ‘personhood’ status.” He noted that the bill “appears aimed at a push by environmental groups to give legal recognition to the lake through the ‘rights of nature’ movement.”
  • S.B. 55: Bear Lake Preservation Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Chris Wilson): This bill develops guiding principles for the management of Bear Lake. These principles recognize and seek to preserve its ecological, recreation, cultural, and aesthetic values but support enhancing the lake for irrigation purposes. Though not directly related to Great Salt Lake, this bill could impact future development in the Bear River Basin.
    • Update: While S.B. 55 was on the agenda for the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee’s meeting on Jan. 17, 2024, the committee did not consider this bill.
    • In the news: In 2023, Idaho lawmakers passed a bill recognizing the natural and valued resources of Bear Lake and its desire to prevent the lake’s degradation. No operation constraints, changes to water rights, or appropriations were made in Idaho’s bill. It also supported the enhancement of the lake’s operational utility for irrigation storage purposes. S.B. 55 is intended to largely mirror Idaho’s bill to ensure a unified approach between the two states. The bill would direct Utah agencies to comply with the code, which is different from what Idaho passed. This was highlighted in a KSL news story.

Significant updates to ongoing bills we are tracking

Here, we continue to track the progress of bills in last week’s report. We discuss bills that we believe will either positively or negatively impact Great Salt Lake. We also track water-related bills that might be of interest.

Bills with positive impacts on Great Salt Lake (listed in order of priority)

  • S.B. 18: Water Modifications (sponsored by Sen. Scott D. Sandall and Rep. Casey Snider): This is a complicated bill, but at its root, it provides Utah additional powers to secure water for Great Salt Lake. If passed, it would make it easier for water-rights holders to justify allowing portions of their water rights to flow downstream and, if properly shepherded, to reach Great Salt Lake. To read more about this bill, read our previous summary.
    • Update: This bill was introduced in the Senate, received its first reading, and was then sent to the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. In the committee this week, the bill received positive comments from members of the public, including representatives of the Utah Farm Bureau, Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, agricultural producers, and Bear River Canal Company. The committee unanimously passed the bill. The bill advances to the Senate with a favorable committee recommendation (Senate committee vote: 6-0-2).
    • In the news: Water attorneys Emily Lewis and Jeffry Gittins discussed the history of S.B. 18 on this week’s episode of Lewis’ podcast, Ripple Effect. Lewis explains that during the 2023 legislative session, S.B. 277 proposed allowing water users who install agricultural water-optimization projects to file applications with the Division of Water Resources to put that saved water to another beneficial use. The bill has since been worked on by a task force, and the result (S.B. 18) is a rough consensus from the parties involved. S.B. 18 identifies two types of saved water from agricultural optimization projects: decrease in depletion and net reduction in diversion. Emily emphasized that this and other provisions would be “fundamental changes to Utah water law.” She also notes that there has been tremendous public investment thus far, which has resulted in a lot of saved water, but it is unclear how to ensure this water reaches GSL.
    • In the news: Ben Winslow, a reporter with Fox 13 News, described S.B. 18 as a bill that would allow “farmers who have switched to new water-saving technologies to file applications to either sell that conserved water or send it downstream without fear of losing their water rights.” He noted that while this bill does not explicitly direct the saved water to the lake, it “is viewed as a way to help get water to the Great Salt Lake.
  • H.B. 11: Water-Efficient Landscaping Requirements (Sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens): This bill focuses on landscaping of public property and buildings—at both the state and local levels—and particularly those that are newly acquired or re-landscaped. To read more about this bill, read our previous summary.
    • Update: On Jan. 18, the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee recommended this bill be replaced and favorably recommended 1st Sub. H.B. 11 with minor, non-substantive modifications. On Jan. 23, 2024 1st Sub. H.B. 11 passed its third reading in the House (Vote: 51-22-2).
    • In the news: Water attorneys Emily Lewis and Jeffry Gittins discussed pending Utah water legislation on this week’s episode of Lewis’ podcast, Ripple Effect, and explained how H.B. 11 builds upon H.B. 121 from 2022. H.B. 121 laid the groundwork for government water conservation, and now H.B. 11 would provide more detailed guidance on the characteristics of prohibited turf. Ben Winslow, a reporter with Fox 13 News, described H.B. 11 as “a bill to require government buildings to use less nonfunctional turf.”
  • H.B. 61: Water Measuring and Accounting Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Carl R. Albrecht and Sen. Michael K. McKell). This bill gives the state engineer powers to create rules about water accounting and the use of technologies to measure water use and water as it is transported downstream. To read more about this bill, read our previous summary.
    • Update: On Jan. 18, this bill received a favorable recommendation from the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. On Jan. 23, 2024, this bill passed its third reading in the House and received a great majority in a floor vote (72-1-2), and on Jan. 24, 2024 was introduced in the Senate.
    • In the news: Water attorneys Emily Lewis and Jeffry Gittins discussed pending Utah water legislation on this week’s episode of Lewis’ podcast, Ripple Effect, and explained that though H.B. 61 is considered minor, it is important. The bill would incorporate telemetry and water distribution accounting into state water policy and the state engineer’s rulemaking authority, thus improving water data collection.
  • S.B. 77: Water Rights Restricted Account Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Scott D. Sandall and Rep. Casey Snider): This bill frees up money allocated to the state engineer toward investments needed to make water shepherding more possible. To read more about this bill, read our previous summary.
    • Update: On Jan. 17, 2024, this bill received a favorable recommendation from the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. On Jan. 23, this bill passed its third reading and received a unanimous vote on its second floor vote in the Senate (29-0-0), and on Jan. 24, 2024, was introduced in the House.
    • In the news: Water attorneys Emily Lewis and Jeffry Gittins discussed this bill on this week’s episode of Lewis’ podcast, Ripple Effect.

Bills with negative impacts on Great Salt Lake (listed in order of priority)

  • H.B. 280: Water-Related Changes (sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider): This bill is particularly complex and is likely to prove controversial. It changes the way in which the state prioritizes water projects, taking power from local jurisdictions and placing it in the State Water Board. The bill also adds a fee on retail water users. It is likely to be a lightning rod for some environmental groups because it modifies Utah code that relates to the potential of Bear River development, which, if such development occurs, would prove very harmful to Great Salt Lake (though it is not clear this legislation would make such development more likely). To read more about this bill, read our previous summary.
    • Update: The Legislative Water Development Commission recommended passage of H.B. 280. The bill has completed its first reading in the House and has been referred to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.

Other bills of interest (listed in order of priority)

  • H.B. 243: Riparian Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion): This bill would require municipalities to identify riparian areas and create zoning laws to protect them. You can read our initial description of the bill.
    • Update: This week a substitute version of this bill has been proposed by its sponsor, but it has not yet been adopted by the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. The updated bill would allow the planning commission of municipalities and counties to consider “property rights and appropriate compensation or benefits for property owners” in drafting a riparian element.
    • In the news: Water attorneys Emily Lewis and Jeffry Gittins discussed this bill on this week’s episode of Lewis’ podcast, Ripple Effect.
  • H.B. 42: Water Rights Publication Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Joel K. Briscoe and Sen. Michael K. McKell): This bill allows the state engineer to electronically confirm the publication of a notice of application. You can read our initial description.
    • Update: The Legislative Water Development Commission recommended this bill (vote: 10-0-3). The bill remains unchanged from its original proposal. The Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee unanimously passed the bill to the Senate with a favorable recommendation on Jan. 23, 2024.
    • In the news: Water attorneys Emily Lewis and Jeffry Gittins discussed this bill on this week’s episode of Lewis’ podcast, Ripple Effect.
  • S.B. 39 Water Shareholder Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Scott D. Sandall and Rep. Casey Snider): The bill proceeds unchanged, and you can read our initial description.
    • Update: The Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee recommended this bill (vote: 12-0-7), and on Jan. 23, 2024, it passed its third reading in the Senate. The House receives this bill on Jan. 24, 2024.
    • In the news: Water attorneys Emily Lewis and Jeffry Gittins discussed the history of S.B. 18 on this week’s episode of Lewis’ podcast, Ripple Effect, and explain how S.B. 39 undoes a provision that was passed last year concerning shareholder change applications. This bill would reinstate the 120-day deadline for water companies to respond to requests from shareholders for change applications.

Other updates

  • Commissioner Brian Steed addresses Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee: Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed spoke with the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. The Office of the Great Salt Lake Commissioner is tasked with “prepar[ing] a strategic plan related to the health of the Great Salt Lake” and facilitating joint efforts between all agencies and stakeholders concerning the lake, among other duties. The need for coordination is more pressing than ever, as decades of lake neglect are quickly catching up with the state. Of principal concern to Commissioner Steed is the hazardous dust generated from the dried lakebed. Commissioner Steed noted that dust mitigation will cost upwards of $1.5 billion if action isn’t taken now to save Great Salt Lake. Last week’s report outlined in more detail a number of short-term action items from the commissioner’s strategic plan.
  • Salt Lake Tribune’s new AI bill tracker: Salt Lake Tribune announced a new bill tracker that translates bills using artificial intelligence (AI) “to decode what each bill would do if enacted into law.” The software tool offers summaries, key definitions, explanations of what changes the bill would make to current law, and, starting next week, tracking of where each bill is in the legislative process. This tool is available to the general public, regardless of whether they have a subscription to the Tribune.
  • Rally to Save Our Great Salt Lake: This past Saturday, Jan. 20, over 1,200 people gathered on the Capitol steps with Save Our Great Salt Lake to rally for Great Salt Lake. Nan Seymour emceed the event, leading the crowd in songs and poems. Speakers included Ben Abbott, Terry Tempest Williams, and Forrest Cuch.
  • Fox 13 News: “Water conservation bills begin to advance at Utah State Capitol”: Ben Winslow, a reporter for Fox 13 News, reports on events on Capitol Hill, including water legislation that impacts Great Salt Lake. In his recent news story, he described four bills discussed above (S.B. 18, S.B. 125, H.B. 249, and H.B. 11).
  • Ripple Effect podcast: In this week’s episode of her podcast, Clyde Snow water law attorney Emily Lewis spoke with Jeff Gittins from Smith Hartvigsen about the beginning stages of the 2024 legislative session. They discussed three major bills, smaller bills they refer to as “cleanup bills,” and “wildcard bills.” They acknowledge that so far, there is “not much on the Great Salt Lake… [at least] not directly,” but anticipate more GSL bills in the hopper. Emily views this legislative session as strategic and thoughtful, as opposed to the frenzy of last year. We include notes from the podcast about particular bills above, provided that they have been introduced. We include the following notes about bills that have not, as of yet, been filed this session:
    • “Unnumbered bill from Owens/Shoulder season bill”: This as yet unnumbered bill from representative Owens resurrects the ideas behind H.B. 538, which came late in the legislative session last year. The bill proposes to limit the municipal irrigation season to May 1 through September 30. Irrigation would otherwise be restricted, with some exceptions. The Division of Water Resources shall then make a good-faith estimate of how much water is saved as a result. Last year’s version of this bill required municipalities to calculate water savings and file change applications dedicating saved water to Great Salt Lake. This year’s version will apparently not contain such requirements.
    • “Casey Snider’s new unnumbered bill”: This bill, which has some traits in common with H.B. 280, proposes creating a clearinghouse of sorts to streamline allocating state funds to water projects. Relevant agencies would submit their annual infrastructure plans to Utah’s Water Development Coordinating Council, and the council would then compile these submissions into a unified water infrastructure plan. In doing so, the council would rank proposed water projects to guide funding.
    • Other bills discussed that are not on our tracking list include H.B. 62 (which builds upon last year’s Utah Waterways legislation, aiming to create educational tools and programs for public schools to implement in water education); H.B. 242 (which is a followup to H.B. 53 from last year, requiring water reporting from state agencies and directing the Division of Water Resources to conduct a study of water use in public schools by October 2025, with the aim of improving water efficiency in schools); H.B. 275 (which clarifies who may receive funding for secondary metering projects); H.B. 57 (which repeals the Snake Valley Aquifer Council chapter, a chapter that is largely defunct today); and H.B. 206 (which repeals the Columbia Interstate Compact provisions).
  • On Point episode, “The Great Salt Lake is drying up. Can it be saved?”: Writer Terry Tempest Williams and ecologist Ben Abbott joined an episode of the podcast On Point to discuss Great Salt Lake and whether it can be saved. In the episode, Terry made a spiritual case for protecting the lake. Terry described the crisis with a metaphor comparing Great Salt Lake to a sibling Utah found annoying for years, only for Utah to find out their sibling is dying. Ben discussed how Utahns need to change their fundamental relationship with water to survive this crisis. Ben also discussed the potential for conflict between municipal water users and agricultural water users as something which must be avoided. While neither Terry nor Ben spoke directly on efforts within the Utah State Legislature, this podcast episode was a sobering reminder of what Utah and Utahns stand to lose if we lose Great Salt Lake.
  • GSL Lobby Days: Join a coalition of lake advocates every week throughout the 2024 legislative session for GSL Lobby Days. Each week, they will provide a rundown of the bills being watched and a short lobbying training before heading out to communicate with our lawmakers together. No experience necessary. Sign up today!
  • Holding vigil: Save Our Great Salt Lake will continue gathering at the Capitol every weekday for vigil: “Each morning from 8-9 a.m. we will walk with the waves around the Capitol in silence; each evening from 5-6 p.m., we will make some joyful noise and celebrate the lake species with puppets built by many members of the lake-facing community.” All are welcome to participate and asked to register in advance. Our Great Salt Lake will also host Lobby Days once weekly for the remainder of the legislative session. For more information on any of these events, visit their webpage.

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