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This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.

Week 3 Legislative Recap: Great Salt Lake, period products, driver’s license tests and the death penalty

A photo of the Great Salt Lake.
Emily Allen
The Great Salt Lake is quickly approaching its lowest water level in recorded history.

There's been a lot of attention over the past year on the status of the Great Salt Lake. A historic drought led to record low lake levels, and state leaders have made it a priority to do something about it.

Caroline Ballard sat down with Emily Means, politics reporter and co-host of KUER’s politics podcast State Street, to talk about how the Utah Legislature is addressing this issue. They also took a look at the biggest bills making headlines during week three of the legislative session.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: We had a historic drought last year, so that certainly did not help the lake. But what else is going on to get it to these really low levels?

Emily Means: One of the biggest reasons the lake is so low is due to decades of diverting water from natural sources for uses like agriculture, lawns, brushing your teeth, taking a shower — just everyday uses. It means that water isn't going into the lake. If the lake continues to dry up, it could have dire consequences. We're talking negative impacts to air quality and public health because of toxic dust storms from the dry lakebed. Scientists also say it will hurt Utah's snowpack. And there are financial impacts as well. The lake brings about $1 billion to Utah's economy through brine shrimp harvesting, mineral extraction and just recreation. So there is a lot at stake here.

CB: Before the legislative session began back in January, there was this big summit on what to do about the lake. What carried over from those discussions and what is the Legislature doing about it?

EM: House Speaker Brad Wilson has really made [the] Great Salt Lake his ‘thing’ this year, and at that summit, he said the time is now to address the shrinking lake. So this legislative session, we're seeing a lot of general water conservation bills, which will be good for the lake. But there are two bills in particular aimed specifically at helping the lake. [H.B. 157] creates a fund for Great Salt Lake that lets revenues from mineral extraction go toward managing lake levels. And the other bill [H.B. 33] formally acknowledges that keeping water in natural sources is a good thing, and it would allow a water right holder — like a farmer — to be paid by a conservation organization or the state to keep water in those natural sources like rivers and streams, and therefore the water will flow to the lake. Someone referred to these as the peanut butter and jelly bills for Great Salt Lake. They really go hand in hand to address this.

CB: What else do lawmakers need to do about this?

EM: Well, the scientists, legislators and environmentalists we've spoken to about this issue all say that what's happening at the Legislature is a good step, but on its own, it's not going to be enough to save the lake. There is one big project that state leaders still support that really contradicts their goals of restoring the lake. The Bear River project will divert water from the Bear River, which is the lake's biggest tributary, to support population growth in northern Utah. Environmentalists say if that project goes forward, it will be devastating for the Great Salt Lake.

CB: Well, the lake is certainly on a lot of people's minds right now, but a lot else is happening at the Legislature. What else happened this week?

EM: Lawmakers supported putting free period products like tampons and pads into public school bathrooms. They view that as an accessibility issue. And it's a bill [H.B. 162] that the House passed unanimously. So that's really remarkable.

There's also a measure working its way through that would translate Utah's driver's license exam into languages other than English. Right now, only refugees and people who are granted asylum can take it in their native languages. And so now [H.B.130 is] up for the whole House to debate.

And Friday morning we learned that Republican leaders in the House do not support a bill to repeal the death penalty here in Utah. That bill [H.B. 147] is sponsored by Republicans, and this is the third time in five years there's been an effort to end the death penalty. Having House leadership speak out against this bill is not a great sign for it. But the Senate president said he was keeping an open mind about the issue.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
Caroline is the Assistant News Director
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.