Generational Advancements in Utah Water Policies this Year (Part 2)

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

Building on the Generational Advancement in Great Salt Lake Water Policies adopted in 2022, a range of additional water and watershed related matters came to the forefront during the Utah Legislative Session. These include substantial investments and policy changes seeking to put the state on a track to manage its water resources within the limits of supply, while allowing for continued well-being of Utah’s communities and wildlife.

This article focuses on the major water bills that have more to do with statewide policy—we did a roundup of the major legislation involving Great Salt Lake (Part 1) earlier this month.

Many of the policy changes focused on reducing water consumption rates, creating flexible water-sharing approaches, and recognizing the role the watersheds and natural environment play in the water cycle and Utah’s vitality.  These approaches include water conservation and agricultural water optimization to reduce water consumption, improving our understanding of water flows and diversions, and flexible instream flow provisions that can benefit agriculture and the environment.

We are grateful to the Utah Legislature, state agencies, and other key stakeholders who worked collaboratively to provide public funds and policy tools that meet the moment.

Agricultural Water Optimization

The Utah legislature appropriated $50 million in 2022 (to supplement $20 million in funding appropriated in November 2021) for agricultural water optimization to reduce agricultural water use, maintain or improve agriculture production and profitability, while creating opportunities for increased operational flexibility. Additional goals will be to improve and measure real-time water diversions and document water use and savings, as well as improve and protect the quality of both surface and groundwater.  

This builds on the 2018 legislation, as amended, creating an Agricultural Water Optimization Task Force and previous funding to evaluate ways and technologies to improve water quantification, increase agriculture production while reducing agricultural water diversion and consumption.

We look forward to seeing this funding assist agriculture and water systems throughout the state, including the Great Salt Lake watershed, particularly in ways that can benefit the lake hydrology. More details on eligibility for the grant program, visit the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food website

Water Conservation and Measuring Water Use

A number of bills and funding were aimed at reducing water consumption and improving measurement and monitoring of water use. These include:

  • Outdoor Landscaping - Water Conservation ModificationsHB121 requires state-owned government facilities to reduce water consumption for outdoor landscaping (5% by 2023 and 25% by 2025); limits the amount of turf at newly constructed state-owned facilities and puts in place outdoor watering and irrigation system requirements. Additionally, the bill establishes an incentive program to pay private landowners to remove turf, such as lawn or park strips in exchange for installing drought resistant landscaping. The legislature approved an initial appropriation of $5 million for these turf removal incentives.
  • Secondary Water MeteringHB242 – with certain narrow exceptions, requires providers of secondary water to install meters for all secondary systems (pre-existing) by January 1, 2030. Additionally, the bill extends the requirement for installing secondary meters on new construction to more rural counties by 2022. The bill also provides for a grant program to secondary water suppliers to help pay for the costs of installation, with larger grants in the early years to incentivize quick transition. Research has shown – even without additional fees – monthly reports explaining how much water a residence is using leads to reduced water use. A 2018 State of Utah Report noted a reduction of 33.7 percent once a secondary meter is installed.

The legislature appropriated $200 million in the 2022 legislative session for the secondary metering program, in addition to $50 million that was appropriated in November 2021 for secondary metering.

  • Water Wise Landscaping AmendmentsHB282 prohibits municipalities, counties, or homeowner associations from preventing property owners from installing water wise landscaping. Such landscaping includes plants suited to micro-climates and soil conditions that require minimal watering and without overhead spray irrigation; landscape designs that use minimal irrigation or reduce area dedicated to turf.
  • Water as Part of General Plan - SB110 requires municipal and county plans to incorporate a water use and preservation element as part of general planning and to account for the effect of different types of land use categories on water demand. These requirements are to be implemented by 2025.

A number of water policy recommendations developed over the last few years have advocated for incorporating water and land use planning – as a land-use decision sets in motion a long-term water demand. These stakeholder processes included the 2017 Recommended State Water Strategy and the 2020 Great Salt Lake HCR10 Steering Group Recommendations to help maintain adequate flows to Great Salt Lake and reports and studies commissioned by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, as well as the State Water Policy.

In 2021, Phase 1 of a project to assist cities and counties integrate water and land use was funded by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, leading to the development of a framework and toolkit that communities can use to assess current status and gaps. Additionally, in 2021, the Utah legislature appropriated $270,000 in funding for a program to assist cities and counties integrate water and land use planning. This is Phase 2 and is being kicked off with a Utah growing water smart program that will include workshops and technical assistance. Read more here.

  • Water ReportingSB89 requires water providers to adopt water conservation plans with goals at least as stringent as the state regional conservation goals unless reasonable justification is provided as to why the regional conservation goal cannot be met. The water provider’s rate structures also must be set out in their water conservation plans. Failure to comply could result in a loss of eligibility for state funding. The bill also requires the state to evaluate and adopt water conservation goals every ten years.
  • Water Reporting Amendments - HB393 authorizes the Division of Water rights to study current and novel use of water in the state, including quantifying the impacts to the water cycle of generating electricity by various energy forms, including coal, electrolysis (hydrogen), solar, and many other forms of electricity generation. Funding of $150,000 was appropriated for the water for power study.
  • Water Related Sales & Use Tax Amendments - HB 221 creates a new water rights restricted account with certain sales and use tax going to Division of Water Rights to pay for staffing, equipment, studies, and legal (up to $8M at end of fiscal year).
  • Watershed Restoration InitiativeHB 131 establishes the Water Restoration Initiative (WRI) within the Department of Natural Resources. The policies and objectives of WRI are to “manage, restore, and improve watershed ecosystems through the state” focused on improving watershed health, biological diversity, water quality and yields, as well as opportunities for sustainable uses of natural resources. The bill formalizes the WRI program that has sat within the Department of Natural Resources for 15 years. WRI’s efforts can be coordinated with federal, state, local or other partners and programs. WRI is required to “develop and oversee a watershed restoration project proposal process to develop statewide watershed restoration priorities that include ranking criteria”. A Water Restoration Expendable Special Revenue Fund was established to accept grants and donations and other funding would be through appropriations.  

Other Measures

  • Preferences of Water RightsHB168 Authorizes the state engineer to study how the state should address water right preferences in times of a temporary water shortage emergency, including process and compensation. A report is due in November of 2022. The bill also includes a section prioritizing water use preferences in a temporary water shortage emergency, but the provision does not go into effect until May of 2023.  A temporary water shortage emergency may not exceed one year and occurs when there is a water shortage combined with Governor’s emergency declaration for a designated geographic region. The preferences include drinking, sanitation, electricity generation and fire suppression and a requirement for compensation to other water users whose water use is interrupted, including the value of the water loss, crop losses and other related consequential damages.
  • Colorado River Authority of Utah Amendments – Tribal representation - one year after the creation of the Utah Colorado River Authority (HB 297), the legislature adopted SB160 providing for tribal representation on the Authority. The bill adds a seventh member, appointed by the Governor, who is “a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe if the tribe is, in whole or in part, located within the state and within the Colorado River system.” The bill also directs the Authority to “seek an appropriate government-to-government relationship on matters directly related to” its authority and mission “with all federally recognized Indian tribes located, in whole or in part, within the state and within the Colorado River system.” The bill, however, did make a change that requires the Authority to adopt policies by resolution, rather than specifically complying with the Utah Administrative Rulemaking Act when adopting policy. The Authority also received $8 for implementing a management plan and ongoing funding was increased by $900,000 to $1,800,000 annually for administration.

The pace at which water policy has changed in Utah in the last few years and particularly in 2022 is astounding. Implementing positive changes will require significant effort and coordination among  stakeholders across state.