The Great Salt Lake Project: Great Salt Lake Policy Accelerator
University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law
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I. 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.
- H.B. 453: This new bill creates a comprehensive regulatory scheme for mining companies that mine using evaporation ponds near Great Salt Lake. Of all the bills currently in front of the Legislature, this is now the top bill on our watch list.
- H.B. 448: This new bill directs the Division of Water Resources to collaborate with agencies to quantify and monitor state legislative water optimization efforts in the Great Salt Lake Basin and report its findings.
- H.B. 295: This bill encourages oil and gas extraction companies to reuse their produced water and clarifies that it does not impact water rights. This could free up fresh water, hopefully for Great Salt Lake.
- S.B. 196: This new bill directs the Great Salt Lake Commissioner to create a plan and pilot program to maximize the amount of water getting to the lake in wet water years like the 2022-2023 winter.
Legislative process: For an overview of Utah’s legislative process, please see our description in a previous legislative update. Utah’s process includes multiple readings of bills and an unusual voting process.
In the following sections, we highlight other major changes or important updates, including
- a more extensive discussion of new bills (part II)
- tracking of the rest of the bills on our Great Salt Lake watch list (part III)
- updates on critical requests for appropriations (part IV)
- news and community updates surrounding the lake (part V)
II. New bills we are watching
In this section, 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 briefly discuss and provide updates on bills we have already addressed in previous reports.
Bills with positive impacts on Great Salt Lake (listed in order of priority)
- H.B. 453: Great Salt Lake Revisions (sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider): This bill may be the most directly impactful bill related to Great Salt Lake currently in front of the legislature . The bill is complicated, but at a high level, it places constraints on the mining industry that currently extracts minerals through evaporation ponds around Great Salt Lake. Estimates vary, but these companies seem to utilize between 5-10% of the water taken out of Great Salt Lake’s watershed. The set of tools provided by the bill include regulatory power to give these mining companies a much more constrained water budget. It also makes sure that all the efforts to conserve water for the lake do not just result in more water for mining companies. The bill also ensures that the state receives increased fees when Great Salt Lake water is used for mineral extraction and creates a pathway for the state to exercise eminent domain and take mining properties, if necessary in the future, to protect the state’s interests in Great Salt Lake. Because of the bill’s potential to get more water to the lake, we have elevated this bill to the top of our watch list.
- Update: This bill was numbered on Feb. 2 and had its first reading in the House. It has been assigned to the House Business and Labor Committee. Most bills we are watching have been assigned to the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. The difference in committee assignments reflects both the importance of the bill and the impact that the bill might have on the mining industry.
- In the news: Amy Joi O’Donoghue at Deseret News reported on H.B. 453 and discussed the broader issue of whether saved water actually reaches Great Salt Lake. “The bill is significant because it makes clear that the water that flows downstream, if intended for the Great Salt Lake, makes it to the lake and stays there. Water rights would still be based on prior appropriation and the first-in-time doctrine.” Ben Winslow at Fox 13 covered the major provisions of H.B. 453, including coverage of the mineral extraction industry’s dissatisfaction with the proposed provisions regarding extraction on the lake.
- H.B. 448: State Water Program Reporting Requirements (sponsored by Rep. Raymond Ward): This bill requires the Division of Water Resources to quantify and monitor state legislative water-optimization efforts, including water banking, and annually report their findings to relevant legislative committees and the public. The division is required to work with the Division of Water Rights, the Colorado River Authority of Utah, the Department of Agriculture and Food, and the Great Salt Lake commissioner to create this report. The annual report must provide: (1) a summary of state legislative water-optimization efforts (including for the Great Salt Lake, Colorado River and Sevier River basins); (2) water quantification related to state legislative water optimization efforts; (3) a “reasonable estimate of where the water made available went,” including an explanation for unaccounted water; and (4) recommendations for changes to state legislative water-optimization efforts that did not lead to intended water conservation. These annual reports will highlight conservation efforts and help determine how much new water is available for the Great Salt Lake and Colorado River basins.
- Update: After spending time with the Legislative Research team, this bill was recently introduced in the House. It has yet to be assigned to a committee or discussed in a hearing.
- H.B. 295: Produced Water Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Steven Lund): Generally, water reuse proposals are problematic within Great Salt Lake’s water basin because used water is later reused by other water users (sometimes after some sort of treatment) and may make its way to Great Salt Lake. This bill addresses produced water—the polluted, salty water left over from the oil and gas extraction process. Extraction companies have possessory interest in this water, and it has to be disposed of pursuant to board rules or can be used for other non-consumptive uses. Water associated with oil and gas extraction is often so polluted that reuse or returning water into freshwater sources is not particularly feasible. The bill would make it easier for oil and gas extractors to reuse this water for further extraction. To the extent that water that has been used for oil and gas extraction could be reused, this would both make oil and gas extraction easier as well as save freshwater that would be used otherwise. On balance, we believe that this bill would be a net-positive for Great Salt Lake.
- Update: This bill has been in front of the House for weeks and recently passed the House and moved to the Senate. Currently it is with the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.
- In the news: The House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee favorably recommended this bill, and the Utah Petroleum Association, Utah Farm Bureau, state engineer, and Utah Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining spoke in favor. Last week, Senator Lund spoke to the House about this bill and estimates reusing produced water could free up over 800,000 acre feet of water for other purposes. The Salt Lake Tribune discussed this bill.
- S.B. 196: Great Salt Lake Amendments (Sponsored by Sen. Nate Blouin): This bill seeks to capitalize on wet water years (like last year’s winter) by directing the Great Salt Lake commissioner, Brian Steed, to create a plan and pilot program to coordinate efforts to maximize the amount of water going to the lake. Wet water years are defined as those with precipitation leading to substantially higher-than-normal water levels in rivers, reservoirs, and soil moisture in the Great Salt Lake Basin.
- Update: This bill was just numbered on Feb. 5 and had its first reading in the Senate.
- In the news: Ben Winslow at Fox 13 reported on the bill, quoting Sen. Blouin: “Last year we saw people kind of tuned out when they saw how much water there was. We need to be focused on it, and we need to be making sure there’s a plan to get it to the lake.” Sen. Nate Blouin posted an informative short video on X describing the goals of the bill and expressed his hope that the bill will make it to a committee by next week.
- H.B. 472: Water Revisions (sponsored by Rep. Brian King): This bill directs the Division of Water Resources and Water Rights to study the creation of a centralized water database and center for all Utah water data. It allows collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and Food, Department of Environmental Quality, Division of Technological Services, and any other state or federal agencies relating to water. Having a centralized water database will help monitor water use and availability across the state.
- Update: This bill was just numbered on Feb. 5 and had its first reading in the House.
Bills with negative impacts on Great Salt Lake (listed in order of priority)
- S.B. 195: Golf Course Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Daniel McCay): This bill makes golf course water usage data protected records under Government Records Access and Management Act (frequently called GRAMA). While this bill proposes formal tracking of water usage by golf courses and seeks to encourage golf courses to improve their usage, it also shields golf course water usage data from public view and access. The bill also directs the Utah State University Institute of Land, Air, and Water to study water use of golf courses in the state and “identify standards for water use on desert golf courses.” The institute will then work with golf course owners to identify water conservation opportunities and report its findings to the Utah Water Task Force and the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee without identifying individual golf courses. It is understandable why golf courses might not like information transparency, but this seems like a step back for Great Salt Lake.
- Update: This bill had its first reading in the Senate on Feb. 5 and was sent to the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee on Feb. 6.
- In the news: Ben Winslow at Fox 13 reported on the bill and sponsor Sen. McCay’s thoughts on tracking water usage in the golf industry, one of the biggest water users that remains untracked. McCay noted that efforts to track water usage on golf courses have been opposed by the golf industry in the past, but this bill addresses golf course owners’ concerns about criticism about water usage from the public by keeping that data from public view. The Utah Transparency Project gave the bill a “Closed Door” rating in The Salt Lake Tribune for its reduction in public access to government records.
III. Significant updates to ongoing bills we are tracking
Here, we continue to track the progress of bills first introduced in previous weekly legislative updates (search through our previous updates). 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 an important bill that changes the law of water rights in Utah in a manner that favors delivering water to Great Salt Lake first by granting reprieves on forfeiture of water rights for nonuse. The bill defines the measurement of “saved water” from irrigation efficiency improvements, including through the agricultural optimization program, and accrues it into the existing water right so it can be used for other purposes (but not expanding irrigated areas). The bill also restricts protests to cases where changes demonstrably impact another appropriator’s water rights. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: S.B. 18 was passed by the Utah Senate on Friday, Feb. 2, and transmitted to the House. The House Natural Resources Committee recommended it favorably by a vote of 10-0-4 on Feb. 7.
- S.B. 118: Water-Efficiency Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Michael K. McKell): This bill attempts to incentivize water-wise landscaping for new residential construction by reimbursing property owners for the difference in price compared to traditional sod. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: Senator McKell submitted a substitute to this bill on Jan. 5. The substituted bill added a sunset date of July 1, 2027. The substitute also broadened the incentive to include all property owners who build new construction, not just developers. While the original bill incentivized water-wise landscaping on residential property across the whole state, the substituted bill does not apply to residential property outside of the Great Salt Lake Basin. The Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee voted 4-1-3 to give this bill a favorable recommendation.
- H.B. 275: Water Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider): This bill addresses outdoor water use by prohibiting homeowners associations from prohibiting water-wise landscaping and expanding who can receive water conservation grants. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: This bill passed all three House readings and was sent to the Senate, where it was introduced and assigned to the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee on Feb. 5.
- H.B. 11: Water-Efficient Landscaping Requirements (sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens): This bill focuses on limiting nonfunctional turf (turf used for aesthetic or landscaping purposes) of public property and buildings—at both the state and local levels—particularly those that are newly acquired or re-landscaped. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: This bill passed its second reading in the Senate on Feb. 1 but was circled on Feb. 2. Circling a bill means temporarily postponing action on it without removing it from its place on the calendar.
- H.B. 61: Water Measuring and Accounting Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Carl R. Albrecht): This bill gives the state engineer powers to create rules about water accounting and the use of technologies—mainly telemetry—to measure water use and water as it is transported downstream. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: On Feb. 7, this bill passed its third reading in the Senate with a 26-0-3 vote and was returned to the House.
- 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, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: On Feb. 1, this bill received a favorable recommendation from the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. On Feb. 7, this bill passed its third reading in the House with a 68-5-2 vote and was returned to the Senate.
- H.B. 401: Water Usage Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens): This bill has not progressed or changed since last week’s update. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
Bills with negative impacts on Great Salt Lake (listed in order of priority)
- S.B. 125: Secondary Water Amendments (sponsored by Sen. David P. Hinkins): 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. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: In a positive turn of events, the bill was amended to exclude the Great Salt Lake Basin from the 2,500 or fewer users exemption.
- 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. It has not been amended and has not progressed since last week’s update. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
Other bills of interest (listed in order of priority)
- H.B. 42: Water Rights Publication Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Joel K. Briscoe): This bill modernizes water rights and change applications, allowing for electric confirmation and reporting. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: This bill passed both the House and the Senate without a single “nay” vote and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
- HB 249: Utah Legal Personhood Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Walt Brooks): This bill prohibits certain categories of nonhumans, including bodies of water, from being granted or receiving legal personhood status. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: The Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee favorably recommended this bill on Feb. 5, 2024 (vote 2-1-3). On Feb. 6, 2024, it was placed on the Senate’s second-reading calendar.
- In the news: Most major Utah news stations have discussed the implications of H.B. 249. Under U.S. business law, corporations and municipalities can hold legal “personhood.” H.B. 249 explicitly states that a body of water, like Great Salt Lake, cannot be granted or recognized as having legal personhood, which blocks it from possessing legal rights, obligations, or the capacity to participate in legal proceedings as a person would. While Representative Brooks told KSL that he did not draft the bill with Great Salt Lake in mind, others have 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. 39: Water Shareholder Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Scott Sandall): This bill changes Utah water law to allow for additional time for change applications by a shareholder in a water company. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
- Update: This bill was passed by the House (74-0-1).
- S.B. 55: Bear Lake Preservation Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Chris Wilson): This bill develops guiding principles for the management of Bear Lake, which would recognize and seek to preserve its ecological, recreation, cultural, and aesthetic values while supporting the lake for irrigation purposes.
- Update: This bill has not progressed or changed since last week’s update. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
IV. Requests for appropriation
Requests for appropriation (RFAs) are mechanisms by which legislators can request funding from the state government for specific programs. RFAs can include one-time requests or ongoing funding. Money can also be requested within specific bills, but RFAs request money for projects outside of bills. RFAs for this session were due on Jan. 27, 2024. Once submitted, an RFA is assigned to a relevant appropriations subcommittee. Subcommittees review the requests and add those they support to an appropriations act that will be voted on by the legislature broadly. Get more information on RFAs.
We will discuss relevant RFAs as they are presented, new appropriation requests relevant to the lake from the governor’s proposed budget, and new updates on RFAs covered in past weekly reports.
This week, on Feb. 7, the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee met for its last scheduled meeting of the session to vote on many of these requests (see the voting package). Senator Sandall, the Senate chair of the subcommittee, noted that approved requests still have one more hurdle to jump before funding is formally granted. Recommendations go to the Executive Appropriations Committee (EAC), which will combine these requests with all other recommendations for funding requests into a single package that moves forward for legislators to vote on.
RFA subcommittee recommend status
- Turf removal funding: $12.5 million one time requested, full amount recommended
- Agricultural water use research: $400,000 ongoing requested, full amount recommended
- Great Salt Lake split-season lease projects: $500,000 one time requested, $170,600 recommended
- GSL Watershed measurement infrastructure: $6.265 million ongoing and $3.565 million ongoing requested, $3.5 million one time, and $2 million ongoing recommended
- Utah Growing Water Smart program – plus: $875,000 one time requested, full amount recommended
- Wetland protection and restoration: $5 million one time requested, full amount recommended
- Great Salt Lake causeway engineering: $500,000 one time requested, full amount recommended
- Great Salt Lake investments: $20 million one time requested, full amount recommended
- Water savings program seed money for Great Salt Lake: $5 million one time requested, full amount recommended
- Division of Water Rights data management improvements: $6.1 million one time and $400,000 requested, full amounts recommended
- Ground water assessment of Cache Valley: $567,400 one time requested, full amount recommended
- Ogden Canyon water line: $10 million one time requested, full amount recommended.
- Atlantis USA Foundation: Not yet considered
- Great Salt Lake phragmites eradication: Not yet considered
New requests for appropriation we are watching
- Division of Water Rights data management improvements: This request was made by Representative Casey Snider. The request is for one-time funding of $6.1 million and ongoing funding of $400,000 dollars to fix water-use data-management issues identified in the Office of the Legislative Auditor General’s Risk Assessment Report. This work would be done through Utah State University.
- In the news: Carter Williams at KSL profiled this funding request as “conjoined” with Snider’s other request for $6.2 million and an ongoing $3.565 million to install additional stream flow and water diversion gauges, described below. Williams notes that a recent audit of the Division of Water Resources (DWR) revealed that “overall water use data management” emerged as the division’s “most critical issue.”
- Ground water assessment of Cache Valley: This request was brought before the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee by the University of Utah, Utah State University, United States Geological Survey, and Utah Division of Natural Resources. The total request is for one-time funding of $567,400 to “conduct a comprehensive assessment of groundwater availability and vulnerability in Cache Valley to inform future water management decisions.”
- In the news: Amy Joi O’Donoghue at Deseret News went into detail about this research and its relevance to water security in northern Utah.
- Ogden Canyon Water Line: This is a request by Representative Calvin Musselman for a one-time appropriation of $10 million to replace 6.4 miles of water transmission line down Ogden Canyon. This requested amount will join $90 million from other sources to complete the project’s funding. Similar projects have saved as much as 3 million gallons (approximately 9 acre feet) of treated water per day.
Updates to ongoing requests we are tracking
- GSL phragmites eradication: Rep. Owens requested a one-time $1.5 million and an additional ongoing $500,000 for phragmite eradication. To read more about this request, see our previous legislative update.
- In the news: Amy Joi O’Donoghue of KSL reported on the past efforts of the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to remove 55,000 acres of phragmites. The division’s deputy director estimated that the “state could save tens of thousands of acre-feet of water by removing the invasive plant and replacing it with native vegetation.” She reports that Rep. Owens described the request as “low-hanging fruit” and a literal “rainy day fund of sorts to allow for the optimal time for removal” after plants have soaked up water.
- Great Salt Lake causeway engineering: Rep. Snider submitted a $500,000 request to fund reconstruction of the Union Pacific Causeway. To read more about this request, see our previous legislative update.
- In the news: Carter Williams at KSL reported that this request would study the feasibility and cost of effectively replacing the currently closed-off breach in the causeway with an aqueduct that would be able to move water in either direction.
- Great Salt Lake watershed measurement infrastructure: Rep. Snider requested a one-time $6.265 million and an ongoing $3.565 million to provide the Division of Water Rights (DWR) the necessary funding to install additional stream flow and water diversion gauges and collect critical water data within the Great Salt Lake watershed. To read more about this request, see our previous legislative update.
- In the news: Carter Williams described this request as filling an important gap left by other laws intended to get water to Great Salt Lake. There are currently no tools to track how much water is saved and if the water actually makes it to the lake, but this request would solve that problem. This request is conjoined with Rep. Snider’s request to improve data management at DWR, described above.
- Will dredging Utah Lake help Great Salt Lake?: Former Utah Governor Gary Herbert approached lawmakers last year with the idea of studying whether Utah Lake can contribute to the water supply of Great Salt Lake. While Herbert was reluctant to say exactly what the study should explore, he mentioned that “strategic dredging” on Utah Lake might reduce water lost to evaporation, which could then be sent to Great Salt Lake. Senator Bramble expressed his intention to open a bill file to fund the study, with a roughly $2 million price tag. The bill is not expected to be drafted until later in the session but is expected to have bipartisan support.
- Ben Abbott, a BYU ecology professor who was previously sued by Lake Restoration Solutions over his criticisms about its plan to dredge Utah Lake, supports the study “as long as it outlines a scientific way to get water to the Great Salt Lake without harming the natural ecology of either lake and if the study isn’t geared to support one specific project.” However, he clarified that “making Utah Lake deeper won’t reduce its rate of evaporation.”
- “More farmers sign up for water conservation grants”: Ben Winslow at Fox 13 reported on the “surge in applications” to receive funding to switch to water-saving technologies under the Utah Department of Agriculture & Food’s Agricultural Water Optimization Program. The latest round of applications “just wrapped up with 392 separate applications seeking roughly $60 million in funding,” the majority of which were in the Great Salt Lake Basin.
- “Decadeslong effort to regrow Utah’s vanishing salt flats may have backfired”: Leia Larsen reports on the study of a management method used for the salt flats called “laydown.” This method is no longer believed to be a good solution according to Bill Keach, state geologist and director of the Utah Geological Survey, and may be harming the wider Bonneville Salt Flats geological-hydrological system. Keach reported his study’s findings to the natural resources appropriation subcommittee on Thursday. “‘The idea that if you add brine to the top of the salt and grow more salt makes sense,’ said Brenda Bowen, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah who co-authored and guided the study. ‘But…folks didn’t appreciate the scale of the connections.’”
- “Opinion: We cannot continue to defile the Great Salt Lake”: The Great Salt Lake Interfaith Action Coalition (GSLIAC), a group formed in 2022 that represents 11 unique religious and spiritual traditions, wrote an opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune emphasizing the importance in many religions on caring for creation and in maintaining the “purity and cleanliness” of physical spaces. Describing the loss of Great Salt Lake as an “existential risk,” the group calls on everyone to do their part. “In restoring the Great Salt Lake, ranchers, farmers, suburban homeowners, commercial property managers, public land managers, industry, community leaders, faith leaders and elected officials all have a role to play.”
- “Lakebed dust is a worry in Utah. For California’s Salton Sea, it’s a full-blown problem”: A family struggling with health issues living near the Salton Sea shares their story, foreshadowing what may lie ahead for the Great Salt Lake. “Utah is just beginning to grapple with its looming dust problem, but for Rosa Mandujano in California, the dust is enough to make her contemplate if it’s worth staying in her hometown.”
- 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!
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