Matt Berry: How Utah legislators can help save the Great Salt Lake

Temporary fixes are not adequate to save the Great Salt Lake.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The shore of the Great Salt Lake on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

In August’s Legislative Water Development Commission, Rep. Keven Stratton asked state water officials how much of the rise in Great Salt Lake levels was from the efforts of the Legislature and how much was from spring runoff.

This is the most important question in Utah right now. It is obvious the statehouse has failed to raise lake levels and Mother Nature gave us a one-time reprieve. But will it be relegated to memory as the Lake continues its race downward?

Utah officials are quick to pat their backs and congratulate themselves in front of TV cameras for weak efforts to save the Great Salt Lake, putting forth measures that provide a serious lack of legitimate aquatic protection for the lake and fail to do what is necessary to address upstream water diversions.

Make no mistake, there are a plethora of actions Utah can take to save the Great Salt Lake. But the Legislature must act now.

Set a goal

It starts by establishing a goal to raise lake levels so we can devise a water budget to deliver water to the Lake over time. But in February, special interests were quick to kill a resolution from Sen. Nate Blouin that the Utah Rivers Council helped prepare to establish a target elevation goal for the Great Salt Lake, despite significant public support for the measure. Creating a goal allows us to measure success, ensure accountability and guarantee cooperation among all water agencies. But Gov. Spencer Cox views the goal as “a dumb thing.”

Beyond just a goal, action is needed to get water donations to the Lake. One means to do that is to ensure that individuals can donate their water rights to raise the level of the Lake in perpetuity. As it stands now, individual water right donations to the Lake only last ten years, and only state agencies can designate water to the Lake permanently. Those state agencies are subject to the whims of politician bosses who could yank those water rights in a moment’s notice. These laws need amendments to ensure that individuals can sell or donate water rights to the lake forever to nonprofit land trusts.

Transfer conserved agricultural water

Next, we need to transfer conserved agricultural water to the Lake. In the 2023 legislative session, Utah legislators allocated $200 million in taxpayer money to increase agricultural efficiency and to conserve water. This law is fatally flawed because most of the saved water on Utah farms is likely to go to other farms or water diversions, as described in several legislative committees in 2023. If Utah taxpayers are funding farm investments, they deserve to have some of the water go to the Lake, not just to farms or worse yet, new water projects that will dry up the Great Salt Lake.

Remove unnecessary property taxes

Then we need to remove property taxes that incentivize water waste by lowering the price of municipal water, which influences the entire Utah water market. Water district lobbyists have fought losing their gravy train of property taxes for decades, and they invent any argument they can to keep them. It is ironic that a conservative state that claims to eschew taxes collects them on all housing, businesses and automobiles to lower the price of water in America’s second driest state.

As a result, we have the cheapest water rates in the nation. By removing these taxes, Utah residents will enjoy reduced taxes and pay the true price for water, which basic market economics dictates will reduce water use. The Utah Rivers Council has advocated for six bills that embrace fiscal conservatism to conserve water but each has been defeated by the Republican-dominated statehouse and the water lobbyists running things from hallways and back rooms.

The reality

Each of these policy solutions and dozens of other good bills to help restore the Great Salt Lake have been stopped cold by state officials and the water district lobbyists guiding them who are widely quoted in the media. State officials support only weak measures to address how we use water, while the Great Salt Lake is staring at ecological collapse.

Critical discussion and questioning of the efforts of the State of Utah should be welcomed. Rep. Stratton’s line of inquiry was a good one.

Yet Utah legislators refuse to let the public present new concepts and respectful criticism in committee. This water lobby has put a gag order on those of us with real solutions by not allowing the public to utter even one syllable to save the Lake in committee for most of the year. Utah officials will continue their gag order while marketing feel-good propaganda to us about what a great job they are doing saving the Lake in the media.

Temporary fixes are not adequate to save the Great Salt Lake. We need to be asking ourselves a different question that gets to the heart of the crisis: Why do state officials refuse to listen to the public and why are they dragging their feet on raising Great Salt Lake water levels?

Matt Berry

Matt Berry resides in Salt Lake City and works as a Water, Fiscal and Conservation Policy Specialist with the Utah Rivers Council, a 501c3 non-profit that has advocated for smart water policy and aquatic protections in Utah since 1994. Prior to Matt’s work in the water sphere, he earned a Master of Conservation Leadership from Colorado State University, worked as a guide in Alaska where he also received his Bachelor in Geography and Environmental Studies, and served as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army as an infantryman.