Great Salt Lake legislative update: Jan. 18, 2024

Jan 19, 2024 | GSL Project

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

Great Salt Lake with mountains in the backgroundThe Great Salt Lake Project: Great Salt Lake Policy Accelerator
University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

The University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law launched its Great Salt Lake Project on the heels of its 2023 annual symposium, which focused on the future of the Great Salt Lake. The core purpose of the Great Salt Lake Project is to provide practical, actionable, and legally sound advice for policymakers who are working to save the Great Salt Lake and to provide this information to the public. A key focus of the Great Salt Lake Project is the Great Salt Lake Policy Accelerator, which encourages policymakers to prioritize and accelerate law and policy to effectuate the meaningful change the lake so desperately needs. This short legislative and policy update, authored by members of the Policy Accelerator,* will be provided on a weekly basis during the Utah legislative session. Sign up to receive future updates in your email inbox.

Commissioner Steed’s Great Salt Lake strategic plan

During the initial week of the legislative session, the most significant news relating to the Great Salt Lake did not originate from the legislature, but instead came from Brian Steed, Great Salt Lake Commissioner. Commissioner Steed’s report to the legislature, entitled The Great Salt Lake Strategic Plan, was made public on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. Commissioner Steed’s strategic plan lays out a hopeful vision of strategies the state can implement to save and sustain the Great Salt Lake.

An important development stemming from the commissioner’s strategic plan is that through it the state has set “a target range for the lake between 4,198-4,205 feet.” This target is a substantial step forward for the state, one that been recommended by the Great Salt Lake strike team’s first report to the legislature in 2023 and a step that the legislature opted not to take last session.

The commissioner’s strategic plan outlines a shortterm plan that will require cooperation between state, federal, and local stakeholders. The strategic plan provides a roadmap for a “way forward” for the lake, including short-term, medium-term, and long-term actions. In the strategic plan, Commissioner Steed outlines four overarching areas where legislative output will be most helpful. These objectives are intended to be the focus throughout the first year of the strategic plan.

Looking immediately ahead at what is most relevant to the upcoming legislative session, the Strategic Plan emphasizes the following short-term actions needed within the next year. While the commissioner also details important medium- and long-term strategies, these are not the central focus of what the commissioner believes is required for this legislative session. Below, we highlight key short-term actions from the commissioner’s strategic plan that depend on legislative cooperation:

  1. Better coordinating efforts on the lake: This strategy includes cooperation among all levels of government. Key for the upcoming legislative session, it also includes working with the legislature to pass legislation relating to agricultural optimization and increased water shepherding, meaning the ability of the state to track water saved for conservation to ensure that water is directed to the Great Salt Lake.
  2. Ensuring that we have the best available science and data to govern future strategies and actions: This strategy includes the development of better methodology for estimating water use and data processing. Important for the legislative session, the report suggests the legislature should explore increasing funding to monitor brine shrimp, brine flies, and birds. The commissioner also directs the state to continue working on the Great Salt Lake Basin Integrated Plan.
  3. Getting more water to the lake: As mentioned above, through the report, the commissioner establishes a target range for the lake between 4,198-4,205 feet, which will be accomplished within 30 years through “annual water conservation targets; quantification of the amount of conservation . . . ; and trigger levels, including an intermediate target elevation of 4,195 feet, that will be used to adjust actions for different sectors.” The state will focus primarily on voluntary exchanges of water rights, including split season and seasonal leasing. Again, with an emphasis on the legislative session, this will require the legislature to appropriate $5,000,000 “to develop a coordinated plan for these types of transactions in agricultural water.”The commissioner’s office will also work with the state to “[q]uantify the amount of water saved through existing conservation programs and work to commit saved water to the lake.” The commissioner will rely on a broad range of strategies to converge more water from all sectors of the economy in the water basin to bring more water to the lake. Key to this effort will be the utilization of money allocated to the Great Salt Lake Enhancement Trust that the legislature funded with $40,000,000 in a past legislative session.
  4. Protecting the Great Salt Lake’s water quality and air: The state will continue developing and implementing salinity management practices, including modifying the berm to manage salinity. The state will also continue to monitor water quality in the Great Salt Lake and expand air quality monitoring in the areas around the lake.

Bills introduced during the legislative session’s first days

Recognizing that a legislative update is somewhat of a fraught endeavor this early in the session, it is still interesting to note what seem to be shaping up as bills that have some promise to help get more water to the Great Salt Lake or to otherwise make changes to Utah law that will lay the foundation for the same in the future. Understanding that some of these bills will be completely replaced as they go through the process, we provide a brief explanation of each of the bills discussed below, though some of these discussions may need to be revised as the legislative session moves forward. In each of the categories below, we list bills in the order of their importance as we see them, with a focus on how the bills may impact the Great Salt Lake.

The following bills stand out as legislation that will help the state get more water to the Great Salt Lake:

  • S.B. 18: Water Modifications (sponsored by Sen. Scott D. Sandall and Rep. Casey Snider): This bill is the most important bill currently proposed before the legislature. Over the past few years, the legislature has directed hundreds of millions of dollars toward water conservation, particularly in the agriculture sector. A significant question about these efforts has been whether the water saved through this funding has resulted in more water for the Great Salt Lake or if it has merely resulted in more water for other purposes. This bill is a step forward in trying to ensure that water that has been saved can be directed to the lake. This bill is not a cure-all of the concerns raised, but it does amount to a very positive step forward in getting more of that water to the lake. This bill is one that should be watched closely.
  • H.B. 11: Water Efficient Landscaping Requirements (Sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens): This bill continues the work of previous legislative sessions to promote municipal water conservation programs. 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. While it does provide for turf in places where turf adds to the experience of a facility (such as a baseball field), it would otherwise place some limits relating to lawns (where lawns are allowed).
  • H.B. 61: Water Measuring and Accounting Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Carl R. Albrecht and Sen. Michael K. McKell); and S.B. 77: Water Rights Restricted Account Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Scott D. Sandall): A major issue for getting more water to the Great Salt Lake has been the issue of what is frequently referred to as water shepherding. As mentioned above, this means getting water that is conserved to the lake. The accounting for such water is complicated. As the state moves ahead toward more water shepherding, we need to figure out how to get the accounting right. HB 61 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. S.B. 77 frees up money allocated to the state engineer toward investments needed to make water shepherding more possible.

The following bills are those that would otherwise protect water resources or amount to improvements in Utah water law.

  • H.B. 243: Riparian Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion): This bill would require municipalities to identify riparian areas (those near or abutting water bodies) and to create zoning laws that suit riparian areas. These areas are particularly important for water quality and wildlife. Some municipalities already provide protections of these areas through zoning. This bill, at least to a degree, would require all municipalities to consider taking measures to protect these areas.
  • H.B. 42: Water Rights Publication Amendments (sponsored by Rep. Joel K. Briscoe and Sen. Michael K. McKell): This bill permits the state engineer to electronically confirm the publication of a notice of application. While confirmation of publication may be affected through electronic means, the state engineer must still publish notice of an application in newspapers. This seems to be an effort to modernize the application system to allow for more real-time transfers, while still providing notice of the filing of an application through traditional means. While we cannot be sure of the genesis of this bill, we believe that the idea of this bill was articulated by a panelist during the 2023 annual Stegner Symposium and then immediately embraced by a state legislator in attendance.
  • S.B. 39: Water Shareholder Amendments (sponsored by Sen. Scott D. Sandall and Rep. Casey Snider): This is not a very important bill for the Great Salt Lake, but it seems to be reversing a change to Utah water law that was adopted last session, and it seems that the reversion back to the older law is an improvement to Utah water law. It allows for additional time for change applications by a shareholder in a water company.

One bill stands out as particularly controversial and, unless amended, has the potential to negatively affect the lake.

  • H.B. 280: Water Related Changes (sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider): This bill will receive a lot of attention during the session. It is a very complicated bill and does a lot. It would modify Utah law relating to the lightning-rod issues of the Bear River Development Project and the Lake Powell Pipeline Project. While it was admittedly a difficult task to try to digest all that is happening in this long, technical bill, it mainly does two major things. First, it changes decision-making around water infrastructure projects. These projects, in the past, have been largely instigated and planned at the local level. This bill tries to provide some state influence on how projects ranging from replacing pipes within cities to major dam repairs, and potentially even new projects, will be prioritized. One reason the bill may prove controversial is that it would take decisions that currently are under the jurisdiction of the legislature and delegate this decision-making power to political appointees on the Water Resources Board. This would make these appointments much more important and would exclude many interested parties. Whether for good or ill, the bill would also replace the public process of legislation to that of a state board. The prioritization system would take away some local decision-making as well. The bill also imposes a fee on retail water users (generally for culinary drinking water systems). Fees are always going to be controversial and raise questions of equity. The bill, while long, does not provide many details about how these controversial issues will be hashed out. A final reason that this bill will garner a lot of attention is because it references the Bear River Development Project. Depending on how rules are developed by the Division of Water Resources, it may worry some that consolidating political decision-making into the Water Resources Board might be a way to advance planning or otherwise provide a pathway to develop aspects of future Bear River development. The Bear River is the main tributary of the Great Salt Lake, and damming the river would prove disastrous to efforts to refill the Great Salt Lake.

Sign up now to receive future Great Salt Lake Project updates in your email inbox. You can also read our read-out inaugural report, Utah’s Legal Risks and the Ailing Great Salt Lake.

* This semester, the Great Salt Lake Policy Accelerator is powered by two law professors (Brigham Daniels and Beth Parker); three senior policy advisors (Steve Clyde, Norm Johnson, and Bill Prince); 10 students at the College of Law (Casey Carrigan, Maria Catalano, Corinne Doerner, Wyatt Ellis, Alyssa Florach-Hess, Bryant Holloway, Caitlin Imhoff, Natalie Merline, Tess Peterson and Spencer Williams); and one professor from Utah State University (Chris Lant), who is using a sabbatical taking classes at the S.J. Quinney College of Law.

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