Open Lands: Here are the water bills the Utah Legislature is considering, and what they would do

Small changes in Utah’s water law could have big impacts on the state’s resources.

Editor’s note • The following is an excerpt from the Salt Lake Tribune’s new Open Lands newsletter, a twice-a-month newsletter about Utah’s land, water and air from the environment team. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on and news we’re following, sign up to have Open Lands delivered to your inbox.

Some of the bills making the biggest splash on the Hill so far include small revisions with big implications.

Take Sen. Hinkins’s SB125, for example. Back in 2022, lawmakers made waves by requiring every secondary water connection in Utah to have a meter by 2030, which is no small lift. Utah has the largest secondary system in the nation, which is good in some ways because it allows us to water our lawns and gardens without using expensive treated water, but bad in other ways because we never knew how much we were using (or wasting).

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Water providers, especially smaller canal companies, weren’t fans of the 2022 policy because retroactively adding meters is expensive and a hassle. Imagine telling a homeowner you’re going to dig up their backyard to access a pipe installed in the 1960s, then add a device that potentially allows you to charge more for water use.

Lawmakers ponied up $250 million to help pay for the program and address those concerns. They also carved out an exception for systems with 1,000 connections or fewer. Hinkins’s bill simply raises that exemption to 2,500 connections.

But that small tweak could have major ripple effects. At least 13 water providers in the state would now find themselves exempt. Ten are in the Great Salt Lake watershed, the Division of Water Resources staff told the Water Resources Board Thursday. And that lake needs every drop it can get. Each system that could find itself now unencumbered by secondary metering requirements previously asked for state assistance, to the tune of about $2.5 million each.

So, what happens to the money if SB125 becomes law?

There’s a big caveat — all the millions appropriated for secondary metering came from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. The funds must be contracted out by the end of this year or they go back to the federal government. State resource managers have signaled they’d like to reassign money from those newly exempt water providers to larger districts, which have been installing secondary meters for years. The larger districts also have the greatest need and can deploy the funds fast.

HB275, sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, has potentially introduced a log jam to that idea. The bill makes a tiny change to the secondary metering policy by allowing water providers to use secondary metering funds for other conservation projects, like lining ditches, if providers can prove they saved more money than meters would have. But can those small districts come up with projects in the few months they have left? Keep in mind, ARPA funds must go to municipal use — they can’t be used for agricultural projects.

Meanwhile, HB280 is shaping up to be the most complicated and controversial water bill this session. The proposal, also sponsored by Snider, changes how the state funds water infrastructure projects to a process similar to how the Department of Transportation plans and pays for highways. State water, wastewater and agriculture agencies will need to develop a project priority list in 10-year phases over at least a 20-year planning period. A state Water Development Coordinating Council would then rank the projects. It essentially moves water infrastructure planning from a local process to a more centralized state process. It would also impose a tax on water users to help pay for water projects. The details of that tax, including how much revenue it generates, would need to get hammered out by the Division of Water Resources by 2027.

A House natural resources committee voted to hold the bill Monday after hearing a lot of comments for and against it. Expect to see a retooled version of the legislation surface soon.

Other bills to watch:

  • SB18 further expands what the state considers a beneficial use of water. Last year lawmakers approved a policy that deemed any water saved through its Water Optimization Program as a “beneficial use,” which can be used for something else, like leases to help the Great Salt Lake. Now that applies to any water farmers save, regardless of whether they participate in the optimization program. It awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

  • SB77 and HB61 help the Division of Water Rights and other state resource managers better track where water is conserved, how it’s moving through the system and whether it’s going to the places they want it to, like the Great Salt Lake.

  • SB118 would provide about $3.2 million in incentives for residential developers to install water-wise landscaping, administered by water districts. It has not had a hearing in committee yet.

  • Two bills address watering turf in the Great Salt Lake watershed. HB401 enacts penalties for lawn irrigation during restricted periods. HB11 prohibits non-functional turf on new construction owned by state and local governments.

  • HB242 directs the state to study water use at public schools. It has not had a hearing in committee yet.

  • HB295 directs the extractive industry to take the saline water produced in oil and gas drilling and reuse it in processes like fracking that typically use fresh water. Sponsor Rep. Steven Lund, R-Manti, said he expects the bill to save 800,000 acre-feet. It received a favorable vote in committee.