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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.

$40 million Great Salt Lake restoration bill advances in Utah Legislature

XGR Blackhawk Heli Tour of Great Salt Lake / Feb. 15, 2022
Scott G Winterton
/
Deseret News, pool
A Blackhawk helicopter flies over the Great Salt Lake as Utah lawmakers take an aerial tour of the Great Salt Lake with the Air National Guard. The group left from the Capitol in Salt Lake City Utah on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

If the Legislature doesn’t get its Great Salt Lake policy right, the results could be disastrous. That’s what House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told a House committee Friday as he presented a $40 million bill to preserve the drying Great Salt Lake. It passed unanimously and now heads to the House floor.

“There's a lot more to be done,” Wilson said. “This will get some things moving over the course of the next year or two, but it's going to be incumbent upon policymakers and state leaders in the future to continue to think about our great bodies of water in this state, and in particular the Great Salt Lake, and make sure that we're doing everything we can to enhance, preserve and protect it.”

The Great Salt Lake is at its lowest levels since record-keeping began in 1847. The drying Great Salt Lake could have disastrous effects on air quality, migratory birds and other wildlife.

“That lake falling is something that's going to have long term consequences on all of us, and if we don't get it right, is going to have billions of dollars in costs and the solutions are not easy,” said Brian Steed, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Wilson’s bill, HB 410 creates a water trust — either a nonprofit organization or a partnership between conservation organizations — that is charged with protecting the lake and its larger watershed. The trust would use the bill’s $40 million to increase or keep steady the water flowing into the lake and sustain its wetlands, among other things. The bill also requires the trust to go after additional private funding to pay for restoration projects.

“I cannot overstate the importance of this bill,” said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the environmental group Friends of the Great Salt Lake. “For too long, the lake has been at the literal end of the line when it comes to water rights. This bill will help change that. For too long, every drop of water in the lake was considered wasted. This bill will turn that on its head.”

The trust would have to consult with an advisory board made up of a wide range of stakeholders, from agriculture to conservation organizations to mineral extraction.

The $40 million is one-time funding, and Wilson said it could come from federal dollars given to Utah under the American Rescue Plan Act, the pandemic relief law passed in 2021.

Wilson’s bill works with another piece of legislation, HB 33, which allows entities like a water trust to purchase water. That passed the full Legislature Thursday but still needs to be signed by the governor.

De Freitas also said over her years of working on saving the Great Salt Lake, she had begun to lose hope.

“With all of that discussion resulting in all of those recommendations, I have to admit that there were times that I wondered whether what we were doing was an exercise in futility,” she said. “The lower the lake got, the more I wondered. I thought it would take a seismic shift in thinking about the lake for many of those thoughtful and practical recommendations to become a reality. And here we are.”

The Utah Rivers Council, however, said the bill doesn’t go far enough. Lindsey Hutchison, a water policy analyst for the advocacy group, said only certain state agencies can hold water rights indefinitely.

“Under HB 410, it would be conservation groups running this water trust, which we fully support,” she said. “But these conservation groups could only hold water rights and streamflow rights for up to 10 years, which would make this more of a short-term solution. And as we all recognize, we need more of a long-term solution.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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