Utah is on the hunt for new water supplies. Here’s what else lawmakers did to address our water challenges.

Another flood of bills addresses the state’s insatiable thirst, from surface water flowing to the Great Salt Lake to groundwater beneath the Colorado River Basin.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wetlands at Goshen Bay, on the south end of Utah Lake, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024.

Only a few years ago, discussing water at the Utah Legislature was both rare and controversial.

But by 2020, the realities of Utahns’ water consumption habits outpacing the state’s supply became clear. The Great Salt Lake and Lake Powell were on their way to record lows. State residents demanded action, and lawmakers listened. Since then, legislators passed dozens of bills each year overhauling the state’s pioneer-era water law. They earmarked half a billion dollars for secondary metering and agricultural efficiencies. They admitted it was time to end our love affair with turf grass and rethink what it means to live in the arid West.

While some Utahns worry more needs to be done, the policy spigot on Capitol Hill remains flowing. Lawmakers approved another deluge of water-related bills this session. Many simply tweak existing legislation. Others make big changes to how industries use the Great Salt Lake’s water, study the state’s aging infrastructure and indicate where Utah will turn for water supplies in the future.

Here are the bills that made a splash this session, successfully navigating their way to the governor’s desk.

Eyeing water from other states

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction of a pipeline along the Antelope Island causeway seen on Tuesday, May 31, 2022.

If there’s a clear message that came out of this year’s session, it’s that Utah’s water woes are far from solved, and lawmakers remain concerned about the future.

One of the biggest and most politically significant bills of 2024 signals legislators think we can engineer our way out of the problem, just like we’ve done in the past.

Historically, engineered solutions meant building dams and reservoirs that got bigger and more expensive with each decade. Those projects peaked in the 1960s with the completion of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, the second-largest water storage project in the nation after Lake Mead. And they were mostly funded by the federal government.

Since then, however, the funds and support for big water projects have slowed to a trickle, with most of the state’s focus on the yet-to-be-built Bear River development and Lake Powell Pipeline. With both Great Salt Lake and Powell sinking to unprecedented lows, however, neither project seems feasible — at least not in the ways lawmakers once envisioned.

SB211 creates a Water District Water Development Council, made up of leadership from the state’s largest water districts, along with a water agent tasked with finding a water supply beyond Utah’s borders.

At first, those following the bill wondered if that meant a pipeline to some other basin like the Mississippi or Snake rivers. But as discussions progressed in legislative committees, it appears lawmakers want to fund desalination plants on the West Coast, so water users in California can use ocean water to meet their needs. Utah would then, in theory, get to keep more water from the Colorado River system to meet its own growth and demand.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton drafted the bill, while Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, sponsored it in the House, giving SB211 significant clout with only a handful of dissenters.

Reigning in Great Salt Lake mineral extraction

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photographs of Compass Minerals in Ogden, April 11, 2022. Compass Minerals produces salt, plant nutrients and magnesium chloride for appilcation primarily in North America. Ogden's 55,000-acre solar evaporation pond complex produces salt, sulfate of potash and magnesium chloride from the Great Salt Lake.

HB453 is a long and complicated bill, and probably one of the most significant pieces of 2024 legislation that benefits the Great Salt Lake. It’s meant to reign in what lawmakers have repeatedly called the “Wild West” of mineral extraction on that lake. It’s also meant to ensure that all the money the state has invested in saving and sending water to the Great Salt Lake doesn’t just get siphoned and evaporated away by industry.

Previously, if farmers cut back on irrigation or cities adopted aggressive conservation goals, there was nothing to stop mineral companies from slurping up all the water that reached the lake. Now the state engineer will develop a distribution plan to keep that from happening.

The bill also creates a framework for mineral extractors to enter into a voluntary cooperative agreement with the state. Under that arrangement, companies pledge to operate in ways that provide minimal impact to the lake and prevent waste. They will consent to curtail their operations when the lake’s salinity concentrations threaten ecosystem collapse.

There are incentives for companies to enter into these agreements. The bill enacts a severance tax for minerals removed and sold from the lake — a practice common for traditional mining in Utah, but never required for lake extractors before. If companies adopt a cooperative agreement with the state, they’ll pay a 2.6% tax. But if they opt out, the rate climbs to 7.8%. Companies that enter into an agreement will pay 0% tax when the lake is below its minimum healthy elevation, with the exception of lithium.

HB453 also creates a mechanism for state regulators to require mineral extractors to install innovative technologies, if they’re compatible with the company’s existing operation, that save water or extract higher-value materials. And they’ll have to pay the state royalties when they remove minerals with high market value, like lithium, instead of using those for cheaper materials like road salts and paying the state less.

The bill further fine-tunes the state’s ability to raise and lower a berm in the Union Pacific Causeway bisecting the lake to preserve the more viable southern half when it hits certain salinity triggers. It directs regulators to keep the two halves of the lake within two feet of each other, however, demonstrating a commitment by lawmakers not to abandon the north half.

Finally, HB453 codifies the state’s ability to retake leases on the lakebed via eminent domain so companies can’t expand their evaporation pond footprints or dredge canals without approval.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, sponsored the bill in the House, and Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, sponsored it in the Senate.

Studying a state water plan

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews restore a canal pipe on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

HB280 made waves early on in the session because it would have transformed the way the state finances water infrastructure projects big and small. The bill got retooled, and its scope reduced. It now directs the Division of Water Resources, in coordination with other state agencies and officers, to study the issue and make recommendations for a future state water plan. It also appropriates $2.5 million in one-time funds for a Water Infrastructure Fund.

Snider and Sandall also co-sponsored this bill.

Tweaking irrigation incentives

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Cox and his son Adam, 14, move irrigation pipes in one of the fields on their 14-acre property in preparation for winter.

Lawmakers have spent millions on water optimization for agriculture, seeing it as a major tool for rescuing the Great Salt Lake and solving the state’s many water shortage problems. SB18 further hones the program, with better definitions of what “saved” water is and how farmers can benefit financially from it, instead of forfeiting it back to the state. It allows farmers who haven’t formerly participated in the state’s optimization program to still sell or lease their saved water. It provides bigger incentives for certain water-saving irrigation systems, like drip and automated surge technologies.

It also ensures saved water can get funneled to the Great Salt Lake.

The bill, again, was co-sponsored by Sandall and Snider.

Adjusting municipal secondary metering

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spinning sprinkler in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 29, 2021.

When Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron, first introduced SB125, Great Salt Lake advocates worried about its ripple effects. The bill exempted municipal water providers with fewer than 2,500 connections from a mandate that all water users have a meter on their outdoor secondary water line by 2030. The bill would have untethered 13 water providers from the requirement, 10 of them lying in the Great Salt Lake watershed.

After some reworking, the exclusion now only applies to providers with 1,000 or fewer connections in the Great Salt Lake basin, with the 2,500 connections rule still applying elsewhere in the state. Those exempted systems must also include a mix of pressurized lines and open ditches, which are hard to meter anyway. Under HB275, exempt water providers can still apply for grants from the state that would otherwise go to meters, as long as they use that money for other conservation projects.

Moving more water from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sky is reflected on the slow moving waters of the Jordan River near the Cornell Wetland Area in Rose Park on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.

Another bill addresses how Utah’s largest natural lakes might benefit each other. SB270 directs the Department of Natural Resources to study how Utah Lake might be deployed to get more water to the Great Salt Lake. The two are connected via the Jordan River. Although there’s some speculation lawmakers might still want to dredge Utah Lake, or dike off part of it entirely, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, has insisted the study will remain neutral with no predetermined outcome.

Other water bills worth noting

  • HB275 also clarifies that homeowner’s associations can’t require residents to have turf grass instead of water-wise landscaping.

  • HB11 limits overhead sprayers — the sprinklers typically used on turf grass — for new construction at government-owned properties in the Great Salt Lake Basin.

  • HB61 adds telemetry to streams and infrastructure so resource managers can track where water is in real time.

  • HB62 creates a curriculum for water systems, cycles and conservation to be taught in schools.

  • HB295 allows oil and gas companies to reuse saline groundwater that’s a byproduct of drilling instead of using freshwater in their processes.

  • HB433 addresses brine mining beyond the Great Salt Lake, including deep groundwater eyed by lithium miners in the Colorado River watershed. It directs the Department of Natural Resources to study the issue and develop a regulatory framework.

  • SB242 repeals Utah Lake Restoration Act, the legislation that opened the door for the now-defunct Lake Restoration Solutions to dredge Utah Lake and build artificial islands.

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