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Utah lawmakers’ ‘water week’ was more about small tweaks than groundbreaking policy

A Pelican floats on Farmington Bay near the Great Salt Lake, June 29, 2021, in Farmington, Utah.
Rick Bowmer
A Pelican floats on Farmington Bay near the Great Salt Lake, June 29, 2021, in Farmington, Utah.

“Water Week” at the Utah Legislature is coming to a close.

2022 was called the “year of water” by lawmakers. A suite of water-related laws were passed, including the creation of a $40 million Great Salt Lake Water Trust.

While 2023 has had its share of water-related legislation, observers say this year is more about refining the work that’s already been done.

“It's a lot of not earth-shaking movements,” said water attorney Emily Lewis. “But where can we find small improvements here and small improvements there and kind of really start to hone and refine our policy instead of, you know, these groundbreaking shifts and changes?”

Those smaller changes include the introduction of bills concerning water-efficient landscaping, how the state handles emergency water shortages and uses groundwater.

The Legislature is still working out the details of several of those bills, with committee hearings and floor votes expected in the coming days.

Other ideas have not been as lucky.

A resolution by Democratic freshman Sen. Nate Blouin of Salt Lake City would have created a non-binding lake-level goal for the Great Salt Lake. The target would have been 4,198 feet above sea level, or 9 feet above where it is currently at. The resolution was held in committee as Republicans opposed it on a party-line vote of 4-2.

Some farmers would like to see the state take a deep dive into understanding how much water primary users like them consume. Gov. Spencer Cox is calling for $500 million to be spent on “agriculture optimization.” That includes things like infrastructure improvements on farms that allow them to help save water in the long run.

Well, you know, your primary irrigators, the irrigators that are using way more water, they don't even have a meter,” said Stan Jensen, who owns and operates a farm in Centerfield. “I think it could be beneficial to just start there because water in Utah is a public resource and it affects all of us and it's important that we manage it correctly and understand how we're using it.”

For Jensen, it’s an important and unique time for water policy.

We've got history, we've got policy, we've got climate change, we've got demands,” he said. “And I think it's really important that as a community we try and always engage in a discussion about water that's constructive and forward looking.”

Just how much money is set aside for studying water will be determined in the state’s budget, which will be finalized by the Legislature in March.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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