Here’s what the Legislature did to help arid Utah better manage its water

New measures will help the Great Salt Lake, calculate how much water Utahns use and educate residents about conservation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A couple on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, with Stansbury Island in the background, on Monday February 27, 2023.

Utah closed out 2022 with water issues across the state.

The Great Salt Lake had shrunk to its lowest elevation in recorded history. Aquifers in the central part of the state were overdrawn. And in the Colorado River Basin, two of the nation’s largest reservoirs — including Lake Powell — sat precariously low, with tension among the states that rely on them beginning to ramp up.

That left Utah lawmakers with a lot of conundrums to solve this session. And even though this winter brought epic snowpack across the West, it will take many good water years to pull the region out of its crippling megadrought.

Here are some of the major water-related bills still floating their way through the final few days of the Legislature’s General Session.

Is Utah really the most wasteful water user?

Policymakers and water managers are miffed that Utah is constantly trashed as being one of the most wasteful water users in the nation. They claim it’s unfair to compare the Beehive State to other arid states in the West because they don’t all calculate water use the same way. SB119 will calculate the water state residents actually consume per capita. State water managers will start by examining Utah’s largest counties, tallying up what’s truly lost — by watering lawns and gardens, for example — and crediting water that returns to the environment after it’s treated in sewer plants and returned to streams or aquifers.

Restrictions on watering turf

Many Utahns have decided vast lawns of green grass aren’t the best landscaping choice in a state facing major water shortages.

To further incentivize water-efficient landscapes, SB118 strengthens the state’s turf buyback program established last year. It allows big water districts to contribute matching funds and provide oversight.

Helping schools conserve

Large school districts along the Wasatch Front have taken big steps to reduce their water and energy use. But smaller and more rural schools don’t have the funds to add things like water-wise landscaping, smart sensor sprinklers or software to monitor energy use. HB217 creates a pilot program providing grants to help these schools pay for water and energy efficiency projects. It will also prioritize schools within the Great Salt Lake basin. The state will apply for $900,000 in federal funds to pay for the grants.

Utah Water Ways

House Speaker Brad Wilson teased Utah Water Ways at his Great Salt Lake Summit in October as one of his solutions to address Utah’s water problems. The program is a public-private partnership that educates Utahns about water and supports conservation projects. Under HB307, the Division of Water Resources will receive an initial $2 million and an ongoing $1 million per year to create and manage Utah Water Ways.

Safeguards for the Great Salt Lake

Utah’s largest and most imperiled waterbody received most of the attention this session, which may come as no surprise. Signs of its ecological collapse have already emerged, and even with all this winter’s storms, it still sits about a foot lower than it did at this time last year.

At its water declines and salinity spikes, HB513 sets an emergency trigger that halts mineral extractors from siphoning the lake’s brine. State regulators will also use the railroad causeway berm bisecting the lake to cut off the lake’s south arm from the north and keep salinity concentrations from getting worse. The idea is to preserve the lake’s brine flies and brine shrimp so millions of migrating birds don’t starve.

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. With HB491, a Great Salt Lake commissioner will unify the response to the lake’s many interests and dilemmas. The commissioner will also develop a strategic plan for the lake and have some authority to take action, instead of only serving an advisory role to other policymakers.

And HB349 will ensure some of the only water guaranteed to reach the lake — treated municipal wastewater — continues to flow downhill. Water managers across the West are eyeing effluent as a potential supply for outdoor use or, potentially, a new source of drinking water. But losing that supply could cause the Great Salt Lake to drop another 10 feet or more.

Incentives for agriculture and conservation in the Colorado Basin

Farmers across Utah have taken advantage of the millions of dollars made available for improving irrigation efficiencies through the state’s Water Optimization Program. SB277 further enhances that program, creating a committee of experts from the Department of Natural Resources and local universities. The committee will help oversee the program, ensure water is saved as intended and conduct studies about agricultural economics and water savings.

The bill also appropriates $50 million each year for projects in the Colorado River Basin to encourage water reuse and conservation.