Can a fee on water use save the Great Salt Lake?

The Great Salt Lake Drought Contingency Bill would trigger increasing fees on secondary water users when lake levels drop.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake as seen near the Spiral Jetty, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. Persistent drought has reduced lake levels to historic lows as the shoreline continues to recede.

Can Utah lawmakers harness market forces to increase flows to the Great Salt Lake, reversing the iconic lake’s dramatic decline?

Believing it possible, conservationists drafted legislation modeled after the plan that has kept Lake Mead from disappearing in the face of unrelenting drought. The Great Salt Lake Drought Contingency Bill would trigger increasing fees on secondary water users when lake levels fall to certain thresholds, thereby encouraging conservation. Agricultural users would be exempt.

Utah residents are heavy users of secondary water for landscaping, but this water is generally not metered and users pay very little for it, according to Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel, who helped write the bill.

“This bill would buoy lake levels, generate money for restoration efforts, and help avert a public health and ecological disaster. It’s a win for the Lake and for millions of Utahns by using the free market to protect the namesake of our capital city,” Frankel told reporters on a press call Tuesday.

The bill, which has not been numbered, is to be introduced by Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, who was not able to join a telephone news conference on Tuesday.

Last summer, the lake level hit an all-time low of 4,190 feet above sea level, about 10 feet lower than what scientists say is optimal. As the lake shrinks, more and more lakebed is exposed to wind erosion, wetlands dry out and salinity increases. Some fear the lake, used by 330 species of migratory birds, is reaching a tipping point, beyond which it cannot recover.

The bill would establish four action tiers at various lake levels, based on a 10-year average of 4,194 feet. Levels below 4,198 feet would trigger a requirement for a study to determine how much water needs to flow into the lake to get it back to a healthy level.

“You can’t keep the lake healthy if you don’t know how much water you need to put in every year,” Frankel said. “We think it’s more than 2 million acre-feet, but we really need to have the agency [Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands] prepare a plan.”

This level would also trigger “Tier One” actions, starting with voluntary water transfers to deliver water to the Great Salt Lake — a measure already proposed in HB33, sponsored by Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City. On Wednesday House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee unanimously advanced that bill, which would bolster instream river flows by enabling farmers to forego their water rights for limited periods without jeopardizing their rights.

The idea is to pay agricultural water users to allow water to remain in streams that would otherwise get put on a field.

“As we look for economic benefit to leave water in the natural system, all the downstream users can benefit. Our lakes and rivers can benefit,” Ferry told the committee Wednesday.

Sagers’s proposed bill presents a more comprehensive strategy. At “Tier Two” lake levels, or below 4,194 feet, that bill would authorize the division to buy or lease water rights that would be allowed to flow into the lake.

“The fun begins below 4,192 feet. At this point, the division would levy a fee of $75 per acre-foot upon secondary-water suppliers,” Frankel said, “Not the water users themselves, but the suppliers that are delivering water within the Great Salt Lake Basin.”

These fees would presumably be passed along to end-users in the form of higher rates.

The fee would double to $150 an acre-foot if the 10-year average falls below 4,190 feet, the lowest tier.