Generational Advancements in Great Salt Lake Water Policies this Year (Part 1)

Major new funding and new flexibility improve the outlook for people and birds, even in drought.

Water-related matters topped the Utah Legislative Session this year with generational investments and policy changes, including important policy measures for Great Salt Lake. These changes—many of which Audubon supported—aim to change the status quo and help Utahns thrive within the limits of our water supplies, by reducing water consumption rates, creating flexible water-sharing approaches, and recognizing the role the natural environment plays in the water cycle and Utah’s vitality.

It certainly has been a big year for investing in Utah’s water future with millions in new funding toward Great Salt Lake and water conservation efforts.

This article focuses on the major bills involving Great Salt Lake—here is a roundup of all the other Utah water bills (Part 2).

Building on January’s Great Salt Lake Summit hosted by Utah Speaker of the House Brad Wilson, and groundwork laid over the past several years, significant funding and policy measures were adopted this session to begin addressing the challenges facing Great Salt Lake.  

Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement ProgramHB410

A substantial investment of $40 million was made in the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Program to create a trust to benefit the lake and its wetlands. Coupled with other water policy changes made over the last few years, along with changes in 2022, the trust can help fund projects and voluntary transactions to retain or enhance water flows to the lake, or improve or preserve wetlands and important hydrologic connections.

The concept is aligned with recommendations of the Great Salt Lake HCR10 Steering Group established in response to the 2019 Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels at the Great Salt Lake. Finding innovative and sustainable sources of funding to ensure water for the lake was a key need identified in the steering group’s 2020 recommendations.

Integrated Great Salt Lake Watershed Assessment (including a water budget for Great Salt Lake) - HB429

An important aspect of ensuring water flows to keep Great Salt Lake and its wetlands healthy is the need to better understand the water supply and demand of the Great Salt Lake watershed.  HB429 creates the pathway for using sound science and technical information, in a coordinated way, to assist decision-makers in understanding how policies and decisions affect Great Salt Lake.

Recommendations from the HCR10 Steering Group and Great Salt Lake Advisory Council encouraged closing data gaps and coming up with an overall water budget and water depletion analysis for the Great Salt Lake Watershed that incorporate the Lake’s water needs into the watershed budget, along with the water needs for agriculture, human use, and the environment.

HB429, coupled with a $5 million appropriation, authorizes the Utah Division of Water Resources to undertake an integrated Great Salt Lake watershed assessment by 2027. However, the planning and work will begin right away with input from other government agencies and a range of stakeholders.

The assessment must include a water budget for Great Salt Lake and its associated wetlands. This includes water flows needed to maintain different lake levels under different scenarios, while taking into consideration water quality, ecological needs, economic benefits, and public health benefits of Great Salt Lake.

Other policy and funding measures for Great Salt Lake include:

  • Changes to royalty revenue accounts that now direct funding to Great Salt Lake (HB 157: Sovereign Lands Revenue Amendments)
  • $5 million was appropriated in November of 2021 for dredging the Great Salt Lake Marina, and addressing increasing salinity levels in the South Arm.
  • The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands received $600,000 to update the comprehensive management plan for Great Salt Lake and undertake educational efforts.
  • $3 million for promotion and education of Great Salt Lake
  • $115,600 one-time and $141,300 ongoing annual funding for enforcing laws prohibiting motorized vehicles from driving on Great Salt Lake’s lakebed and other sovereign lands. This will help protect lakebed crusts from damage that could increase dust emissions. (HB317)
  • $875,000 for a multi-year waterbird study at Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake -- an important effort that Audubon strongly supports to improve knowledge of bird population trends at these important water bodies and management actions that are needed to sustain healthy bird populations.

Additional Water Measures Affecting Great Salt Lake and Other Parts of Utah

  • Instream Water Flow Amendments - HB 33 modifies the instream flow laws creating one of the most flexible tools for farmers and others to use water rights for instream flow purposes. The bill eliminates many restrictions and allows private entities to acquire and hold instream flow rights on a temporary or fixed time basis (up to 10 years at time), while also clarifying that instream flow rights apply to sovereign lands, such as Great Salt Lake. In addition to the Division of Wildlife Resources, and Division of State Parks, the bill also authorizes the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to hold instream water rights. This is another tool that can benefit many areas of the state, and adds another approach for placing water to beneficial use at Great Salt Lake.
  • State Engineer Modifications - HB 334 allocates $830,000 one-time, and $530,000 annually to fund additional deputy state engineer positions at the Utah Division of Water Rights. It is anticipated that this will include a deputy director for the Great Salt Lake watershed, as well as flow measurement at areas that include Great Salt Lake major tributaries.

Western water policy is notoriously complex and slow to change. Just a few years ago, policy tools and funding to facilitate water flows in rivers and into Great Salt Lake were limited. But Utah has taken a leadership role that may offer lessons for many other western states.