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2 Utah Dems want to funnel more water and money into the Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake, northern arm, Gunnison Island, Aug. 3, 2022
David Childs
Gunnison Island, a key breeding ground for American White Pelicans in the northwest corner of the Great Salt Lake, as seen from the air, Aug. 3, 2022.

Two Democratic lawmakers are pitching ideas that focus on getting water to the parched Great Salt Lake. So far, their policies are the only ones introduced in this session that directly fixate on saving the iconic landmark.

The Great Salt Lake is in critical condition and Gov. Spencer Cox said saving it is a top priority. A Brigham Young University study found if aggressive action isn’t taken to bring water to the lake, it could disappear in five years. It’s also reached record low water levels and the ecological collapse of one the most diverse ecosystems has already begun.

The first idea is a resolution backed by Sen. Nate Blouin to establish a restoration goal for the lake’s water levels. Supporters ambitiously want to raise them by about 9 feet, which is considered the minimum level to maintain a healthy lake according to the Department of Natural Resources.

During an unveiling of the legislation on Wednesday, Blouin said the state has set up a framework to get water to the lake – but policies “are currently just operating on guesswork,” when it comes to where the lake needs to be.

“We don't have a benchmark to measure how we're doing against where we need to be,” he said. “So it's time that we set a goal that we can work towards and celebrate when we get there.”

The bill doesn’t include a deadline for when the state needs to reach the goal. When asked, Blouin said the timeline “is unofficially as soon as possible.”

The second idea is sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe. For the next five years, HB286 would redirect new money from a construction fund intended for the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Development, also known as the Water Infrastructure Restricted Account, to help revive Great Salt Lake.

Both are projects that would divert water to Southern and Northern Utah to sustain its growing population and water needs.

“Looking at our dryness and low water flows, it would seem to me that this is the place where the money should be going now is Great Salt Lake,” he said.

The existing money in the account would not be touched under his legislation. Briscoe said political leaders noted the aforementioned projects are “so far in the future,” that the funding collected should be used to prevent the “imminent collapse of the Great Salt Lake right before our eyes.”

2023 Utah Legislative Session, Joel Briscoe and Nate Blouin announce Great Salt Lake bills, Jan. 25, 2023
Saige Miller
Democratic lawmakers Rep. Joel Briscoe, speaking at the lectern, Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council and Sen. Nate Blouin announce two bills aimed at restoring the Great Salt Lake, Jan. 25, 2023.

The Utah Rivers Council said the fund would garner roughly $300 million in five years from sales tax revenue for stakeholders to do things like purchase water rights for the lake. That figure could fluctuate, Briscoe said, based on the economy and how much money is being accumulated through sales tax.

The bill does not dictate how the money is used to save Great Salt Lake. But Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said “it's very clear that the purpose of this fund is to maintain water levels.”

Last year, the Legislature created a $40 million Great Salt Lake Trust, which could buy water rights for the lake. Lawmakers also passed a change to Utah law that made it legal for sovereign lands, like the lake, to hold water rights and allowed water rights holders to lease or give their rights to the lake. Another change says that water staying in the lake is now considered a “beneficial use” of the resource.

The proposed policies of Blouin and Briscoe are backed by water conservation advocacy groups, like the Utah Rivers Council and FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. Both will need Republican support if they are to make it to the governor’s desk. Right now, Blouin said they’ve just started talking with their GOP colleagues.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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