Utah legislature eyes changing approach to saving Great Salt Lake

A bill that will be introduced in the Utah State Legislature will task one person with overseeing efforts to save the Great Salt Lake.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds gather for a "Rally to Save Our Great Salt Lake" at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023.

The position, currently titled the “Great Salt Lake Commissioner,” will coordinate with government agencies, environmental, tribal and industry groups and come up with a master plan for the future of the lake.

“It puts one person and one agency in charge of the Great Salt Lake to manage it,” said House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, in an interview with FOX 13 News.

The bill is expected to be made public in the Utah State Legislature soon. It would be a significant change in approach to how the state is responding to the lake shrinking to historic lows and the environmental catastrophe it presents with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and harms to wildlife and public health.

Rep. Schultz said what policymakers need is a “holistic” approach to the lake, balancing many different interests.

“We need to look at everything under the sun. We’re the fastest-growing state in the nation. We can’t just stop growing, right? So we have to work — how do we grow? How can we conserve water? How can we make sure water is being shepherded to the Great Salt Lake?” he said.

As the bill is drafted, Governor Spencer Cox would appoint the person as commissioner and the Utah State Senate would confirm them. The Great Salt Lake Commissioner would then answer to the governor, House Speaker and Senate President. They would work with state agencies, but also consult with industry, environmental, tribal and other groups on lake issues. The commissioner would also oversee a multi-million dollar trust set up specifically designed to get water into the lake by either purchasing or leasing water rights.

“It doesn’t necessarily take any authority away from the other agencies that have their part in it, but it helps require those groups to come together to ensure we’re all working towards the same goal, which is the Great Salt Lake,” Rep. Schultz said.

Environmental groups FOX 13 News spoke with on Thursday had a range of reactions from a “wait and see” approach to skepticism. Some questioned if the legislature really would listen to environmental and tribal groups about lake issues.

“We’re a bit skeptical about the language of authority and ‘holistic,’ but we’re hoping it airs on the side of a good authority like the Colorado River Authority,” said Alex Veilleux with Save Our Great Salt Lake.

Veilleux said there are good authorities and bad ones from their perspective, referencing the inland port, Utah Lake and Colorado River oversight bodies. Save Our Great Salt Lake said it was frustrated with the lack of progress on bills aimed at helping the lake in the Utah State Legislature. Despite lawmakers’ declarations that saving the lake is a top priority, bills the environmental group have been supportive of have failed and others aren’t getting off the ground.

“The legislature’s had the opportunity to stand up and fight for the lake and just looking at that record? They haven’t been,” Veilleux said.

Rep. Schultz insisted they are all working toward the same goal, but he added there are competing interests to be balanced.

“We still have to have water... to live and survive,” he told FOX 13 News. “We still have to have water to run through our faucets. We still have to have water to grow the food that we eat. Are there things we can do and can we do a better job shepherding water to the lake? Absolutely. That’s what we need is a balanced approach.”

Save Our Great Salt Lake said it is pushing for funding requests for efforts that help the lake and is still actively supporting a number of bills in the legislature to help with water conservation. The group is supporting a bill just introduced by Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden. House Bill 450 allows for more water-wise landscaping options across Utah.

“You can’t have more than 50% of a requirement that is non-water wise landscaping,” Rep. Wilcox said of turf.

The bill, which was just filed in the legislature, is in response to communities and homeowners associations that Rep. Wilcox said were still blocking people from tearing out their turf and putting in more desert-friendly landscaping.

“That’s strange, right? We’re in the middle of this 20, 30-year drought we’re talking about,” he told FOX 13 News on Wednesday. “We have some that have still half-ignored the law.”

Veilleux said it was a bill Save Our Great Salt Lake supports.

“I believe this bill puts conservation first. So we’re happy to see it,” he said.

This article is published through the Utah News Collaborative, a partnership of news organizations in Utah that aim to inform readers across the state.