The future of the Great Salt Lake is not being threatened by a single act of nature or of humanity. And it won’t be saved by a single act of the Utah Legislature.
But a handful of bills now or soon to be before the Legislature, along with some proposals from Gov. Spencer Cox, show that the state’s political class is starting to take notice of the sorry state of the feature that means so much to our economy and our ecology.
Individually and collectively, these steps can be faulted for not being bold enough to face the issue. The work is being done in bits and pieces and agriculture, the biggest single drain on our water, gets off much too easily.
But politics is the art of the possible, and it is more than encouraging to see that the window of what is doable is moving in the right direction.
House Speaker Brad Wilson kick-started the opening of the legislative mind with his Great Salt Lake Summit in early January. Cox moved his annual budget announcement to Antelope Island, and included some $400 million for various water conservation projects and $45 million specifically aimed at Great Salt Lake preservation.
Proposed water conservation legislation includes HB33, sponsored by Brigham City Republican Rep. Joel Ferry. The bill would let water rights holders — farmers, mostly — allow water they would otherwise be entitled to use to flow on downstream without losing any of their claims to future water. That would be a welcome change from the use-it-or-lose-it approach so often applied to water rights and could be a significant tool the state could use to pay farmers to temporarily forgo the use of individual water rights for the common good.
Also in the works is a bill from Tooele Republican Rep. Douglas Sagers, under the title of The Great Salt Lake Drought Contingency Bill. It would set up a system of triggers to, first, figure out just how much water needs to be directed to the Great Salt Lake every year and, having done that, impose a system of fees to encourage water providers in the Bear, Jordan and Weber river basins to keep their hands off at least some of the water that they have been providing to customers so it can make its way to the lake.
At issue is something called “secondary water.” That’s H2O that is not treated for household use but used for irrigation and purposes other than drinking. In most parts of the country, such water flows through domestic water systems and is billed to its end users, providing a market signal that should encourage people to be careful with it. But Utah runs that water through another — secondary — system that escapes metering.
So not only is there no incentive to be frugal with that water, there is also no good measure of how much is being used. Sagers’ bill would get a handle on that, a plan that would be assisted by the governor’s plan to spend $200 million to finally start metering secondary water use.
Together, the Sagers and Ferry bills have the advantage of being attractive to political conservatives and environmental conservationists as they use payments and fees, rather than command and control, to push behavior in the desired direction.
Given the Great Salt Lake’s importance to the local economy, to millions of migratory birds and to the lungs of people all along the Wasatch — as a desiccated lake will expose generations of toxic silt to the wind — all of these steps are the least we can do to reverse the decline of that body of salty water.
It’s time for all Utahns to let their elected officials know they too care about the future of the lake and expect action right away.