As the Utah Legislature starts its second week, it is clear water remains a big priority for lawmakers in the nation’s second-driest state.
Last year saw a deluge of conservation bills, including millions to meter secondary water use and revisions to old laws that now recognize helping the environment is a worthy use of the state’s limited water. Still, the Great Salt Lake has continued to shrink and it’s crossing the threshold of ecological collapse. Central parts of the state struggle with depleted groundwater. Down south, Lake Powell’s decline continues while tensions ratchet up among states that rely on the Colorado River.
While the state and much of the West have received some much-needed relief in the form of heavy snowfall this winter, it’s clear one year won’t be enough to reverse Utah’s water issues. And with about 40 days to go in the session, a lot can still happen — Gov. Spencer Cox has asked for big investments in cloud seeding, water leasing and addressing agricultural irrigation efficiencies. Here are some of the water-related bills of note that have surfaced so far.
A special license plate for the Great Salt Lake
Drivers could soon show off a special license plate honoring the Great Salt Lake if SB 92 passes. Motorists would pay an extra $25 when registering, which would then go to the state’s sovereign lands management account to help fund research and care for the lake. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring the bill, which received a favorable recommendation Thursday from the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee.
The lake’s brine shrimp also get some love
A bill has reemerged that honors the charismatic and commercially lucrative critters living in the Great Salt Lake. Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, is attempting for the second year in a row to get the brine shrimp recognized as Utah’s state crustacean with HB137.
As the lake’s waters recede and salinity levels spike, the shrimp face unprecedented risk. The shrimp serve as a vital food source for millions of migrating birds who are rapidly losing habitat as salty lakes dry up throughout the West and the world.
Golf courses might have to publish their water use
As Utahns rip out their grass and let their once-lush lawns turn brown, the vast sea of green found at golf courses has stoked their ire. And recent reporting has found that golf facilities are not always the best at tracking their water use or ensuring it’s consistent.
HB188 requires golf courses to share how many gallons they use outdoors each year both with the Division of Water Resources and publicly on their own websites. Any water the facility reuses would be excluded. Rep. Doug Welton, R-Payson, introduced the legislation.
Improved land use and water planning
As Utah continues its breakneck growth, some lawmakers are concerned the cities and counties planning for new development are not always working with water suppliers to ensure they have the resources to meet future demand.
Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton recently told a legislative committee that water districts and water companies tend to operate in “silos.” He is sponsoring SB76, which requires better coordination between water suppliers and land use planners. It also directs municipalities to consult with the Division of Water Resources to understand how the land and water use in their general plans will impact the Great Salt Lake and regional water supplies. The bill calls on cities and counties to consult the Department of Agriculture and Food as well to explore conservation easements and irrigation efficiencies on farms.
Turf removal is in demand, but it needs more money
Water districts across the state are paying Utahns to rip out their turf and replace it with water-wise landscaping, and the incentives have proven popular.
“Some of the districts saw a 500% increase after this last summer in requests,” Joel Ferry, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, told the Utah Water Task Force earlier this month. “[It’s] basically exhausting their existing funding pools.”
SB118, also sponsored by Sandall, would funnel state funds to water districts to further bolster their turf removal programs. More rural areas of the state that are not served by big water districts would be eligible for a turf buyback program run by the Division of Water Resources.
The bill includes safeguards to ensure the turf removal is permanent. If a homebuyer purchases a property that took advantage of the turf removal program, then plants a lawn where it was removed, they will be required to pay back any funds the previous homeowner received.
Sandall’s bill does not include a specific dollar amount dedicated to the turf removal program. But Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, shared draft legislation at a Utah Water Task Force meeting this month that floated $12.5 million. It would also require cities to ban non-functional turf in new construction before they could participate in the program. Owens has yet to introduce a bill.
Property taxes for water projects get scrutiny
Sen. Daniel McCay made a splash this fall when he unveiled a draft bill that would nix the property taxes big districts like Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District receive to supplement their water infrastructure projects.
He called the revenue districts receive “some of the worst tax policy I’ve ever heard” and “both morally and socially irresponsible.”
The bill McCay has since introduced this session, SB34, walks back some of that fervor and instead requests the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a study.
The use of property tax is controversial because conservation advocates say it makes the cost of water appear artificially low. Smaller water providers like city utilities, for example, must secure bonds for projects and pay them back by charging customers more. If the same rule applied to bigger districts, it would encourage more Utahns to use less. Utah also is unusual in how much its water districts rely on property taxes compared to other Western states, according to a recent report.
Schools could get a conservation assist
Some of the state’s big, urban school districts have worked with student interns in recent years to study and cut back both their water and energy consumption. At Canyons School District, those efforts saw a 43% reduction in energy use and save around 20 million gallons of water, Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, told the Utah Water Task Force last month.
But smaller, rural districts often don’t have access to the resources that would allow them to retrofit schools with smart sprinklers, solar panels or water-efficient landscaping.
“I come across young people,” Bennion said, “and they’re really concerned about our water and energy use. To have them be involved is really healing for them and for our communities.”
She is sponsoring HB217, which would channel nearly $10 million to qualifying school districts to improve their conservation, with a priority for rural schools and districts or charter schools within the Great Salt Lake basin.
Simple fix provides assurances for communities struggling with groundwater supply
SB53 makes a small tweak to the existing statute, clarifying that surface water used to artificially recharge an aquifer is considered a “beneficial use” in areas struggling with over-tapped groundwater supplies. Beneficial use means the water goes to something the state considers constructive rather that getting wasted. Traditional examples included growing food, mining or supporting a household, but lawmakers have worked to expand the definition in recent years.
While the Great Salt Lake has received much of the local and national media’s attention when it comes to Utah’s water issues, communities are struggling across the state, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told lawmakers in committee while discussing his bill Thursday.
“There are significant water issues throughout the state, all across the state,” Vickers said, “and they require diverse solutions.”
His bill is specifically meant to help Parowan Valley in Iron County, but it provides clarity and could aid systems throughout Utah that are pumping well water faster than it can recharge.
Correction, 8:19 a.m., Jan. 24: This story has been updated to correct the party Rep. Bennion belongs to.