Great Salt Lake legislative update: Feb. 1, 2024


Jan 31, 2024 | GSL Project | Brigham Daniels | Beth Parker

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

View of the Great Salt Lake at sunset, at Antelope Island State Park, UtahThe 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.

  • 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. SB 18 passed second reading in the Senate on Jan 30.
  • 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, and imposes a fee on water users. The House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee decided to hold this bill and revise it before sending it back for votes.
  • 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. This bill has been given a favorable recommendation by the Senate Business and Labor Committee.
  • 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. This bill has not progressed or changed since last week’s update.
  • H.B 61 and S.B. 77: These bills will give the state more ability to track whether conserved water makes it to 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.
  • H.B. 401: This shoulder-season irrigation bill was just introduced and narrows the municipal irrigation season from May 1 to Sept. 30, restricting municipal irrigation of lawn and turf for the rest of the year to save water.
  • S.B. 57: This bill could have drastic impacts, effectively allowing the Utah Legislature to prevent federal agencies from enforcing some federal regulations like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act standards in Utah. Governor Cox signed this bill on Jan. 31, 2024. Upon signing the bill, Governor Cox issued the following statement: “Balancing power between state and federal sovereignty is an essential part of our constitutional system. This legislation gives us another way to push back on federal overreach and maintain that balance.” S.B. 57 seems like a bill that would fail to recognize federal law and, if enforced, may very well run counter to the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution is commonly referred to as the Supremacy Clause).

Requests for appropriation: Some of the most important actions that the Legislature has before it take the form of requests for appropriations (RFAs), meaning budget requests. Below (in part VIII) we summarize the RFAs related to Great Salt Lake. These requests include major funding requests for turf buy-backs, water monitoring necessary for water shepherding (i.e., monitoring necessary to track saved water back to Great Salt Lake), a pilot program for split-season leasing, and funding for the Great Salt Lake Commissioner’s office. These requests are harder to track than bills, and we believe that our tracking will prove helpful to our readers.

II. Background on Utah’s 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.

III. 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)

  • H.B. 401: Water Usage Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens): This bill narrows the municipal irrigation season to May 1 through Sept. 30, restricting municipal irrigation of lawn and turf for the rest of the year. The bill provides exceptions for irrigation for a reasonable period after new sod has been laid or new grass seed germinates; during the operation, testing, or repair of an irrigation system; and as part of an agricultural, commercial, or other business that requires the use of lawn or turf. The bill permits municipalities to impose additional penalties for violations and requires the Division of Water Resources to make and publicize an annual good faith estimate of the amount of water saved by persons not irrigating lawn or turf during a restricted period.
  • H.B. 275: Water Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider): This bill was introduced during the first week of the legislative session and was recently amended to include water-wise landscaping terms. The current bill prohibits homeowners associations from enforcing regulations that prohibit homeowners from installing water-wise landscaping. This bill provides an important step in reducing outdoor water use from homes in the Great Salt Lake basin. Other sections of this bill clarify and broaden who can receive grant money for water conservation projects by allowing secondary meter funding from previous sessions to be used for other water conservation projects.
    • Update: The House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee recommended the newly amended version of this bill, and it just had its second reading in the House.
    • In the news: This bill’s introduction was discussed in the Ripple Effect podcast (35:30-36:37), hosted by water law attorney Emily Lewis, and summarized in last week’s legislative update. The Salt Lake Tribune pointed out that expanding these grants could use Utah’s excess American Rescue Plan Act funding coming from S.B. 125’s metering exemptions. See the full story.

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. 57: Utah Constitutional Sovereignty Act (sponsored by Sen. Scott Sandall): This bill is a declaration that asserts that the Utah Legislature has the power to pass joint resolutions that would prevent the enforcement of federal laws and regulations that run counter to principles of state sovereignty. While the bill is broad enough to impact a wide range of policy areas, one could imagine that this bill could be relevant, for example, to federal agencies enforcing federal law like the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act as a response to the declining Great Salt Lake. S.B. 57 seems like a bill that would fail to recognize federal law and, if enforced, may very well run counter to the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution is commonly referred to as the Supremacy Clause).
    • Update: The House and Senate both passed the bill. Governor Cox signed this bill on Jan. 31, 2024. Upon signing the bill, Governor Cox issued the following statement: “Balancing power between state and federal sovereignty is an essential part of our constitutional system. This legislation gives us another way to push back on federal overreach and maintain that balance.”
    • In the news: There has been significant media coverage of this bill. The Salt Lake Tribune discussed the controversy around this bill and its potential implications, quoting the bill’s sponsor Senator Scott Sandall saying, “There are times when I believe that the state of Utah has been harmed, and the citizens have been harmed through actions that the federal government has placed on the states.” Sandall referenced Utah’s ongoing air quality issues, noting that this bill could give Utah a means to avoid complying with federal ozone regulations. See the full article.

IV. Significant updates to ongoing bills we are tracking

Here, we continue to track the progress of bills from 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.

V. 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)
    • Update: This bill has not progressed or changed since last week’s update. We anticipate that it will be supported, but it has not yet been considered by the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
  • 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 has been given a favorable recommendation by the Senate Business and Labor Committee (vote: 5-0-3).
  • H.B. 42: Water Rights Publication Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Joel K. Briscoe)
    • Update: This bill has not progressed or changed since last week’s update. It is awaiting its second reading in the Senate. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
  • 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, 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 Jan. 26, this bill received a favorable recommendation from the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee, and on Jan. 29, it was placed on the Senate second reading calendar.
  • 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 Jan. 24, this bill had its first reading in the House, and on Jan. 30, it was sent to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.

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

  • H.B. 280: Water-Related Changes (sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider): Still controversial, this large bill takes the power to prioritize water projects away from local jurisdictions and gives it to the state water board. It also proposes an undefined fee on water users to fund water projects like Bear River development. While undefined, the current bill requires implementing a fee by the end of 2026. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
    • Update: The House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee discussed this bill at length on Jan. 29. The main concerns discussed include a nonrepresentative committee deciding water priorities for local areas, the new fee and how it will function, and inequitable distribution of funds. Supporters highlighted the need for additional water funding but recognized this bill needs more work. The committee voted to hold the bill and address some of the concerns and fee details before moving forward. We are keeping watch for an amended version of the bill.
    • In the news: The Salt Lake Tribune discussed the controversy around this bill, including centralizing water priorities and the proposed tax. See the full story.

VII. Other bills of interest (listed in order of priority)

  • S.B. 125: Secondary Water Amendments (sponsored by Sen. David P. Hinkins)
    • Update: This bill has not been amended and has not progressed since last week’s update. To read more about this bill, see our previous legislative update.
    • In the news: The Salt Lake Tribune mentioned S.B. 125 in an excerpt from their twice-a-month newsletter, Open Lands. The excerpt gave greater background into S.B. 125, noting that this bill would change a law passed in 2022 that exempts water systems with 1,000 connections or fewer from being required to install water meters. S.B. 125 seeks to raise this exemption to water systems with 2,500 or fewer connections. While it is anticipated that this bill will be amended to exclude water systems within the Great Salt Lake water basin, S.B. 125 could have serious consequences for delivering water to Great Salt Lake if left unchanged.
  • H.B. 249: Utah Legal Personhood Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Walt Brooks)
    • Update: This bill passed its third reading in the House on Jan. 30, 2024 (vote: 58-11-6). It was introduced in the Senate on Jan. 31, 2024, and it will next be sent to a Senate committee.
    • In the news: Most major Utah news stations have discussed the implications of H.B. 249. KUER explained that under U.S. business law, corporations and other non-human entities 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. 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.” All public comments during the bill’s committee hearing expressed opposition to the bill.
  • S.B. 55: Bear Lake Preservation Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Chris Wilson)
  • H.B. 243: Riparian Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion)
  • S.B. 39 Water Shareholder Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Scott D. Sandall and Rep. Casey Snider): 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 has completed its first reading in the House and has been referred to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee.

VIII. Request 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. Find more information on RFAs.

We will discuss relevant requests as they are presented, and we also include appropriation requests relevant to the lake from the Governor’s proposed budget that he delivered to the legislature as the session began.

  1. Great Salt Lake investments: The governor’s proposed budget requests a one-time request of $20 million in funding that will provide the Great Salt Lake commissioner with additional resources to procure water leases and develop other strategies to restore the Great Salt Lake. Most requests relating to Great Salt Lake (below) will be included into this $20 million and not be above and beyond that number.
  2. Water savings program seed money for Great Salt Lake: The governor’s proposed budget also includes a one-time request of $5 million in funding from the Great Salt Lake account to help leverage $50 million in federal Inflation Reduction Act dollars to address management issues related to the Great Salt Lake. If the state secured this money, it could, for example, more than double the funds available in the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust.
  3. Great Salt Lake split-season lease projects: Following recommendations from the Great Salt Lake strategic plan, Rep. Owens requested $500,000 to set up split-season leasing pilot programs and a handbook to help farmers participate. Split-season leasing would allow water rights holders to lease water for part of the year while allowing it to flow downstream for the rest of the year without forfeiting their water rights. In the longer term, proving the concept of split-season could prove vital in saving Great Salt Lake.
  4. Turf removal funding: Rep. Owens requested $12.5 million for additional turf removal projects across the state. Currently, the state has appropriated $3 million for turf removal, but the funding needs to be increased by an additional $12.5 million annually to match the estimated need for turf removal by the state’s water districts. Fox 13 News reports that the program has resulted in removing more than four million square feet of nonfunctional turf, saving 104 million gallons of water.
  5. GSL phragmites eradication: Rep. Owens requested a one-time $1.5 million and an additional ongoing $500,000 for phragmite eradication. Funding would empower forestry, fire, and state lands to bolster initiatives in vegetation management and invasive species control, particularly around the GSL area, including removal of invasive phragmites. One study estimated invasive phragmites consume about 71,000 acre-feet of water in the Great Salt Lake basin in a typical year.
  6. Agricultural research: Rep. Owens requested an ongoing $400,000 to study a variety of issues related to agricultural water use. This request would improve data measuring, reporting, and monitoring in addition to studying best irrigation practices, saved water markets, and split-season leasing.
  7. Great Salt Lake Causeway engineering: Rep. Snider submitted a one-time request for $500,000 that would fund the engineering of the reconstruction of the Union Pacific Causeway. The ultimate purpose of the reconstruction is to manage salinity levels in the Great Salt Lake.
  8. Wetland protection and restoration: Rep. Hall requested a one-time grant of $5,000,000 to conserve and restore wetlands and habitats near the Great Salt Lake and an additional $500,000 one-time appropriation to analyze infrastructure needs for salinity management and hydrological improvements.
  9. Great Salt Lake watershed measurement infrastructure: Rep. Snider requested a one-time $6.265 million and an ongoing $3.565 million in funding to provide the Division of Water rights the necessary funding to install additional stream flow and water diversion gauges and collect critical water within the Great Salt Lake watershed.
  10. Utah Growing Water-Smart Program Plus: Rep. Owens requested a one-time $875,000 in funding to continue the collaborative Growing Water-Smart Program project and target two primary goals: (1) accelerate efforts of local government to incorporate water-smart planning into their land-use planning processes and provide technical expertise and guidance to participating communities; and (2) implement programs to increase availability of qualified water-wise landscape practitioners. The funding would support participation of additional communities in the Growing Water-Smart workshops and would include ongoing technical guidance for participating communities.
  11. Atlantis USA Foundation: Sen. Hinkins requested a one-time $700,000 to research methods for restoring aspen stands to high elevation forests to decrease forest fires, and to increase water yield to streams, aquifers, and habitats for livestock and wildlife. The legislative designee for the request is Mike Siaperas, founder and CEO of 106 Reforestation. This funding is most likely to test “roller felling,” a unique form of mass tree felling that 106 Reforestation invented.

IX. Other updates

  • “Utah’s 2034 Olympics are a likely deadline for helping the Great Salt Lake”: KUER interviewed The Salt Lake Tribune’s Leia Larsen about the international criticisms Utah would face if the 2034 Olympic ceremonies get “blasted with a lakebed dust storm,” melting snow faster and creating poor air quality. Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed recently indicated that a 10-year action plan to refill the lake may be possible, but Larsen notes this also depends on snowfall and “just how committed Utahns are to getting water to the lake” by participating in the legislature’s programs on secondary metering, agriculture water optimization, and water shepherding. Larsen questions whether action around the Great Salt Lake will move quickly enough given 2023’s record snowpack, the difficulty of the problem, and general public fatigue around the issue.
  • “Utah’s Legal Risks and the Ailing Great Salt Lake”: We recently published our inaugural report titled “Utah’s Legal Risks and the Ailing Great Salt Lake.” This is the first in a series of publications from the Great Salt Lake Project that will discuss legal risks relating to the Great Salt Lake’s decline and analyze the progress that has been made in restoring the lake.
  • “Health care professionals ask policymakers to save Great Salt Lake”: Utah Public Radio reported on the lawsuit filed in 2023 by five different groups alleging “the state of Utah is failing to protect Great Salt Lake.” Specifically, this article focuses on the group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. The group created a sign-on letter, urging the state to “implement whatever policies are necessary and declare that maintaining the lake’s surface area is essential to protecting the health of Utah residents.”
  • “Great Salt Lake commissioner to ask for reservoir releases”: Fox 13 reported that GSL Commissioner Brian Steed “plans to ask local water districts to release some water stored up in reservoirs to send downstream into the lake,” but did not have any details on when or how Steed will make the request.
  • Northern Shoshone Restoring Bear River Massacre Site: High Country News reported on the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, which purchased back 350 acres of their ancestral land in 2018, conducting ecological restoration. Nearly 400 people planted 8,500 trees and shrubs in the area. The tribe estimates that “it can return 13,000 acre-feet of water to Great Salt Lake annually by shifting vegetation from invasives to native plants, cleaning up creeks and restoring degraded agricultural fields to wetlands.” The Northern Shoshone’s effort is supported by Utah State University.
  • Save Our Great Salt Lake Rally: Ben Winslow reported on last week’s rally of over 1,200 individuals. “‘I have never seen this kind of urgency, passion, participation from all walks of life. Diverse, deep and wide,’ said author and activist Terry Tempest Williams, who participated in the massive demonstration.”
  • 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!
  • “How Much Would It Cost To Pump Ocean Water Into The Great Salt Lake?”: The Provo Tribune reported on a 2023 BYU study in which BYU engineers “analyzed how much energy and money would be required to save the Great Salt Lake by transporting water in from the Pacific Ocean through a single large-diameter pipeline.” The article summed things up: “TLDR: We’d save the Great Salt Lake but would worsen our inversion problem and incur serious financial costs.” The Salt Lake Tribune and Fox 13 both reported on Sen. Sandall’s continued support for “water augmentation” by looking to import water from out of state during the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee meeting on Jan. 22, 2024. Sen. Sandall characterized conservation as a short-sighted solution that will fail in times of drought in contrast to a “long-term” solution of a pipeline. Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed indicated that water augmentation is still considered an idea “worth exploring” but won’t be considered for a few years.
  • 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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