Did the Utah Legislature do enough to save the Great Salt Lake?

With only a few days left to go in the session, here are the bills to watch.

(Westminster College) Scientists and students search for brine shrimp in a field of exposed microbialites at the Great Salt Lake on Oct. 25, 2022. Microbialites and brine flies are vital components that support millions of migrating birds each year at the Great Salt Lake, but that food web is collapsing due to low water levels and rising salinity.

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Dozens of scientists and conservation groups called on Utah lawmakers to take bold action and save the Great Salt Lake from collapse. So, with mere days left to go before the Legislature adjourns, did it do enough?

“You’ll have to ask me on Friday,” said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, when I spoke to him between votes on the House floor Monday. “We’ve got a big week ahead of us.”

The 2023 general session doesn’t feel quite as splashy as last year. There’s no multimillion-dollar push to install secondary meters, for example. There are no major overhauls to the state’s water laws. And we definitely didn’t see any emergency actions to get water to the lake at any cost, as researchers and environmental advocates had urged.

There have been a few disappointments. A resolution to set a target elevation for the lake failed. A bill that would have required golf courses to report their water consumption got buried by industry lobbyists. Yet another would have taken the taxes collected for the Bear River dam and Lake Powell pipeline projects and funneled those funds for five years to an account to help the Great Salt Lake instead. That bill didn’t even get a committee hearing.

Still, lawmakers and lake advocates say there are reasons for optimism as the clock ticks down to sine die. Some interesting legislation has emerged as recently as last week.

“The Great Salt Lake is fundamental to the state. We’ve got to do something in that space,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, who co-chairs the Great Salt Lake caucus with Owens. “The Legislature has to act now, we can’t wait any longer.”

Here are the bills to watch in the days ahead:

  • A salinity trigger: As the lake’s water shrinks its salinity spikes, killing off food sources for millions of migrating birds along with the multimillion-dollar brine shrimp industry. HB513, sponsored by Snider, would set an emergency trigger allowing state regulators to halt mineral extraction and manage the railroad causeway berm when salinity hits a certain concentration. While it’s not quite the same as a target elevation, it’s functionally similar. The lake needs a certain amount of water to bring salinity to safe levels.

  • A Great Salt Lake commissioner: More than half a dozen divisions across two state departments manage various aspects of the lake, from its lakebed to its water quality to its wildlife. Lawmakers have tried to better align those agencies and interests in the past. In 2010, they created the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. In 2020, they designated a Great Salt Lake Coordinator. Now, with HB491, they’re looking to create a Great Salt Lake Commissioner who will develop a strategic plan for the lake and have some actual power to get things done.

  • Recycled water woes: It may seem counterintuitive, but the water residents of the Wasatch Front use to shower, wash their dishes and brush their teeth is some of the only water guaranteed to flow downhill to the Great Salt Lake. Sewer plants treat the water and discharge it to canals and rivers near the lake’s shores. But with populations booming in the West and water supplies at risk, cities and utilities are eyeing that treated water as something residents could reuse outdoors, or even as a new drinking water supply. If cities in northern Utah recycled their wastewater, it could drop the lake by another 10 feet or more, Snider said. He drafted HB349 to keep that from happening.

Correction, 7:02 p.m., Feb. 28: This story has been updated to note Rep. Doug Owens is a Democrat.