Water bill roundup: Utah lawmakers approve a deluge of conservation measures

From rethinking water rights, investing in imperiled lakes and creating incentives to conservation, here’s how new legislation could finally shift attitudes about water in the nation’s second-driest state.

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It was the year of water on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers debated a flurry of bills during the 2022 General Session addressing everything from the Great Salt Lake to watersheds to how much homeowners irrigate their lawns. More than triple the amount of water-related legislation was filed this year compared to 2021.

And it’s no wonder — the West faces a water reckoning. It’s choking on the worst “megadrought” in a millennium. In Utah, the Great Salt Lake is on the path to drying up and becoming an air quality and public health disaster. Utah Lake’s water has depleted, too, exacerbating its algal bloom issues. Down south, Lake Powell is so low that its hydropower turbines are about to run dry.

Utah has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most arid states, with the nation’s highest water consumption, run by a Legislature apathetic — if not outright dismissive — toward conservation. But the current crisis brought some sweeping and far-reaching changes this year that finally might shift Utahns’ deep-seated cultural attitudes and political positions on water.

The Great Salt Lake gets some love

When the Great Salt Lake hit a record low during last summer’s crippling drought, it was a wake-up call for many Utahns, including the state’s elected leaders. Last month, a helicopter tour gave lawmakers a bird’s-eye view of how vulnerable the state’s inland sea has become, with its islands no longer islands and 150 square miles of lake bed exposed.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, introduced HB410 to enhance the Great Salt Lake. The legislation creates a $40 million trust, managed by a group of diverse stakeholders who are charged with finding more water for the lake and improving its upstream habitat. A whopping 73 legislators signed on as co-sponsors, and the bill passed with unanimous support in both chambers.

(Scott G Winterton | Pool) A Blackhawk helicopter flies over the Great Salt Lake as Utah lawmakers take an aerial tour of the Great Salt Lake with the Air National Guard on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

A second bill, HB429, requires the Division of Water Resources to develop an assessment of the five watersheds that feed the Great Salt Lake — Bear River, Weber River, Jordan River, Utah Lake and the West Desert. The bill directs another $5 million to identify the lake’s water quantity and quality needs, with the idea of gathering better data. The division will have until the end of November 2026 to complete the study.

A bill honoring one of the Great Salt Lake’s most charismatic creatures, however, didn’t make it to a vote on the Senate floor, although it had broad support in the House and the backing of students from Emerson Elementary School. HB298 would have made the brine shrimp the state crustacean. It also would have made Utah the only noncoastal state with an official crustacean. Brine shrimp cyst harvesting is a multimillion-dollar lake-based industry.

Utah Lake gets new oversight

Like the Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake faces issues tied to drought and neglect. Its waters have long been plagued with invasive species and toxic algal blooms. HB232 creates a new taxing authority, similar to the Utah Inland Port Authority, to raise funds and find solutions for the lake.

The Utah Lake Authority will have an 11-member board and collect half the sales tax in a jurisdiction that includes parts of Provo, Orem, Vineyard, Lindon, Lehi and Saratoga Springs.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Jordan River meets Utah Lake in Saratoga Springs on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

A similar effort to create a lake authority last year became mired in controversy due to fears that it would facilitate the Utah Lake Restoration Project, a concept creating 34 artificial islands with housing subdivisions from dredged lake bed. This time around, the Utah Lake Authority received broad support in both the House and Senate.

The proposed island-dredging project will also see some constraints under HB240. Under that legislation, developers will need to prove that the project will benefit the environment, make financial sense and have a “solid legal footing,” according to Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem and the bill’s sponsor. State regulators will draft objectives for the development, and the Legislature and governor will need to sign off on selling any of the state-owned lake bed.

Pioneer-era water law gets an overhaul

Utah’s “use it or lose it” water law is as old as the pioneers who dug the state’s first canals, and it means irrigators forfeit any water rights they’re not using. Until recently, that gave farmers little reason to let their water flow downstream, even when irrigating doesn’t make economic sense.

“There are very few mechanisms for creating incentives for conservation,” Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City and HB33′s sponsor, told a committee last month.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Weber River flows into the severely diminished Rockport Reservoir as areas normally covered by water lie bare on Monday, June 21, 2021.

Conservation groups previously worked with lawmakers to create an exception for farmers who lease their water rights specifically to improve fish habitat. Now, under HB33, irrigators can also dedicate their water to a variety of environmental benefits — including wildlife protection or filling up the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake — for a period of up to 10 years. Water rights holders would work with state agencies like the Division of Wildlife Resources, the Division of State Parks and the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to secure those in-stream flow contracts.

Instead of farmers planting crops and taking a loss to preserve their rights, they can get paid to benefit Utah’s waterways. Ferry, a farmer based in Box Elder County, called it a “market-based solution.”

“Farmers, while we play the hand we’ve been dealt,” he said, “we’re also pretty good businessmen.”

The days of unlimited outdoor watering are numbered

One of the most expansive — and expensive — water bills this year will mandate meters on secondary water connections. Utah is home to some of the nation’s largest secondary water systems, which pull water straight out of streams and reservoirs for use outdoors. Because the water isn’t treated, sediment and river gunk clog up traditional meters, which means thousands of households across the state irrigate their lawns for a flat fee with no clue about how much water they’re using.

Weber Basin Water Conservancy District has found that installing meters designed for secondary systems causes customers to voluntarily cut back their consumption by as much as 60%. HB242 requires those meters on nearly all of the state’s 221,000 secondary connections. The bill’s supporters say it will save enough water to fill the equivalent of a Jordanelle Reservoir, but it’s going to be a heavy lift.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber Basin water district is installing secondary water meters today as part of a program to reduce water waste, seen Thursday, April 26, 2018.

Even after one of the most aggressive campaigns in Utah to date, Weber Basin has managed to install only about 12,000 meters in the past decade. Many smaller water providers worry about the labor and costs HB242 will demand.

The legislation channels $200 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to help providers pay for the meters. Lawmakers also made some concessions — water districts won’t be required to install meters if they can’t get guarantees that the meters will last. Small providers in rural districts can also seek exemptions.

Utahns get incentives to rethink their landscaping

Despite its status as the nation’s second-driest state, Utah is chock-full of lush green lawns, even during the hottest days of the summer. But as drought tightens its grip on the West, lawmakers want Utahns to reconsider their landscaping choices.

The state will create incentives to rip out turf and lead by example. Under HB121, the state will peg $5 million to reimburse homeowners who replace all or part of their lawns with drought-resistant plants.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A quiet afternoon at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.

And at all new and remodeled state-owned buildings, including universities, only 20% of the landscape can include turf. State agencies must also reduce their water consumption by 5% in 2023 and by 25% at the end of 2026.

Cities and counties must adopt water conservation plans under SB110. The bill further directs local governments to remove turf in park strips and encourages them to reduce grass where possible, as well as eliminate ponds and water features that cause unnecessary water loss through evaporation. Municipalities’ water plans will also need to include methods for reducing water use in existing and future developments. The Utah Division of Water Resources will help cities and counties draft their proposals.

Drinking water and power generators get priority during a water shortage

Utah was on the brink of a water shortage crisis last summer that would have forced some difficult decisions. With that in mind, HB168 would compensate water rights holders if the governor or Legislature declares a temporary water emergency.

Under such an emergency, the state’s limited water supplies would first go to drinking water, sanitation, fire suppression and electrical generation, trumping even the most senior water holders. None of that is really new, except adding power generation to the list of priorities.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The rising sun lights up the rim above the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers marking the start of Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands Utah in mid-October 2021.

The real crux of HB168 (besides compensating farmers for their loss) directs State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen to figure out how, exactly, the state can take water away from someone without using eminent domain. Utah has never declared a temporary water emergency before, but it could be on the brink of one.

Wilhelmsen will tap water right owners and other stakeholders as she conducts a review of how prioritization will work, then report her findings to lawmakers in November.