A bill that would turn over management of the beleaguered Utah Lake to a new taxing authority was swamped by opposition during its first committee hearing Tuesday.
The legislation, HB364, would have created a Utah Lake Authority tasked with rehabilitating the lake, long overrun with invasive species, heavy nutrient loads and toxic algal blooms.
Under the bill, the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands would turn over control over the state-owned lake bed to the Utah Lake Authority. The authority would then serve as a political subdivision, eventually enacting a tax on the project area to fund its ongoing operations and environmental restoration, estimated to cost as much as $7 billion.
But water users and environmental interests both down and upstream of the lake worry about unintended consequences.
“A lot of government officials end up making decisions and have to backtrack because they don’t understand water, and this is all water,” said Rep. Michael Kohler, R-Midway, a member of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.
Kohler added that he felt “a bit of consternation” that the Utah Lake Authority’s proposed board with about a dozen members did not specifically include a “direct” representative of the water community. He suggested holding the bill so lawmakers could do further study in coming months.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, told the committee he has met with members of the water community and fielded their concerns.
“I have probably made 25 different changes to the bill to tell each of the different water attorneys, in the language they want, that we’re not going after their water rights,” Brammer said.
He also listed the myriad issues plaguing Utah’s largest freshwater lake, which connects to the Great Salt Lake via the Jordan River.
“It’s a mess, frankly,” Brammer said. “We’ve got the algal blooms, we’ve got phragmites, carp, phosphorus, salt pollution, silt build up. In spite of that, it’s one of my favorite places ... It’s been a big part of my life.”
Brammer added that developable land near the lakeshore remains stagnant, despite Utah County’s breakneck growth.
“Every time I ask ‘How do we solve this problem?’ I haven’t heard a lot of great solutions,” Brammer said. “This is not intended to say what the solution will be. It’s intended to provide a governmental structure that has a chance at it.”
He compared Utah Lake to a failing heart, circulating water throughout a vast and complex system. Locals living closest to its waters are feeling effect of the damage now, but a dying system eventually harms all who depend on it.
“I fully recognize that we have to preserve the quantity, or in other words, the water rights that flow into and out of the lake. I don’t want to upset that,” Brammer said, continuing the heart analogy. “If the blood flow stops, the patient dies. I get that.”
But the current entity tasked with finding solutions for the system, the Utah Lake Commission, does not have the resources or authority to address a problem of this scale, which could take a 100-year plan to address, Brammer said. He added that its composition also hinders progress.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong this, but it’s a reality — there are a lot of board members on the Utah Lake Commission that are there to defend another entity’s interest in the lake, not necessarily to promote the lake itself,” Brammer said. “That can [create] a problem in developing solutions.”
The bill sponsor also addressed what he called “the elephant in the room” — a proposed development currently under review that would dredge the lake bed to create artificial islands, including one with a city of up to half a million people.
“If that were granted, [the Utah Lake Authority] would have to deal with that and manage the process,” Brammer said. “If it were not granted, they would still have to remediate. This lake needs help either way.”
Brammer worked to bring cities adjoining the lake on board as well.
“We’ve come from a position of strong opposition to embracing this vision,” Provo Deputy Mayor Isaac Paxman told the committee. “It provides a platform and gives proper respect and control to the cities and towns.”
But the overwhelming sentiment from committee members and members of the public representing water users associations, the Utah Farm Bureau and environmental groups like the Audubon Society was that Brammer’s bill needed further consideration.
“I would like to commend Rep. Brammer for trying to move forward with something to start getting this lake maybe not to the way it used to be, but at least to improve lake conditions,” said Carly Burton with the Utah Water Users Association. “[But] the overlapping jurisdictions here between state, city, county, private ownership is kind of mind-boggling ... we would recommend sending it to interim study.”
Some questioned why such a far-reaching and complex bill had been introduced so late in the legislative session, with less than two weeks left.
“Since the scope of this legislation goes well beyond the shores of Utah Lake and the boundaries of Utah County, it requires a thorough investigation of the impacts and consequences likely to come from it,” said Lynn De Freitas with FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. “So, what’s the rush?”
Brammer retorted that since the proposed Utah Lake Authority would be funded with local tax dollars, it should have local control.
“This isn’t in your backyard, for a lot of the water systems. It’s in our backyard and Utah County is moving a million miles an hour right now,” Brammer said, referring to his population growth. “Right now there are many protecting it as a side job and there’s not a lot [who] view it as their primary job.”
Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, said he wanted to see water interests echoing the same support as Utah County cities, adding that water solutions often take years to draft.
“Part of the challenge here is that some of the implications are in our backyard,” Hawkes said. “The lake feeds the Jordan River, the whole Salt Lake Valley, even the Great Salt Lake … are those voices adequately represented?”
He also questioned the implications of the public trust by disposing state lands like the lake bed.
A motion to favorably recommend the bill failed on a 10-3 vote.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, attempted to amend HB364 and delay its effective date by one year, extending it to July 2022 instead of July 2021. A fiscal note attached to the bill estimated a cost of $852,000 in ongoing and $170,000 one-time money from the General Fund. Stratton said he favored moving the bill forward to take advantage of a $1 billion-plus surplus this year, but delaying implementation to allow time for further study.
“Obviously this issue is not going away,” Stratton said. “This can memorialize at least a starting point.”
The committee opted to move to its next agenda item without voting on the amendment.
“I think it’s clear where the committee’s head is at on this,” Hawkes said.