UPDATE: Governor Signs Utah Water Bills

Policy priority updates for the 2020 Utah legislative session.

(UPDATE 4/26/2020): The Utah Legislature passed (and the Governor signed) important water bills that Audubon supported.

As one of the most arid states, stretching Utah’s water supplies to meet many needs is challenging—particularly in the face of a changing climate and a growing population expected to nearly double by 2065.

As part of multiple working groups, Audubon has been working alongside other key stakeholders to develop solutions to increase Utah’s flexibility in managing water resources for agricultural, municipal, and environmental needs. We believe the following priorities represent some of the best collaborative actions passed during the 2020 legislative session:

Water Banking Act: In response to the 2017 Utah Recommended Water Strategy and the 2019 joint legislative resolution to study water banking and recommend legislation, more than 70 stakeholders spanning agricultural interests, water suppliers, and conservation groups developed a framework for water banking. That framework forms the basis for the 2020 Water Banking Act (SB 26), passed unanimously by the legislature. This Act authorizes the 10-year water banking pilot program allowing water rights holders the opportunity to temporarily and voluntarily lease their water rights included in a water bank. The objectives of the Act include promoting optimal use of the public’s water, transparency, and access to markets. The Act’s provisions also are intended to facilitate sustainable agricultural production, meet municipal demands, and help meet water quality standards and provide for a healthy and resilient natural environment.

The legislation goes hand-in-hand with efforts to study water banking supported with a $400,000 appropriation in 2019, along with an award of $400,000 from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for a WaterSMART Grant. Three areas are designated for study under the grant, including demonstration projects in Cache County, the Snyderville Basin, and Price River.

We greatly appreciate Utah’s proactive legislative sponsors and the many collaborators who spent years developing the water banking program, seeking input from water users throughout the state. Learn more at utahwaterbank.org.

Split-Season Uses and Applications to Change Water Use: Split-season water sharing arrangements were proposed in the 2017 Utah Recommended Water Strategy and were incorporated into H.B. 130 which was unanimously adopted by the legislature. This flexible tool facilitates short-term seasonal water uses for the benefit of agricultural, the environment, and other water uses. For example, a farmer could decide to irrigate a first cutting of hay and then forego subsequent cuttings that year, while leasing or allowing another user to use the remainder of the farmer’s water for that irrigation season. While split-season uses would be subject to water availability and other conditions to avoid harm to users, it offers another means to share water for the benefit of many users and the environment.

The legislation recognizes split-season uses, while also clarifying that change applications can be “temporary” (1 year), or “permanent” (indefinite), and a new provision that authorizes “fixed-time changes” that can be longer than one year, but not exceeding ten years.

Watershed Council Act: A stakeholder group, including Audubon, has worked on a framework to set up a statewide and local watershed councils. The idea for local basin councils was also an outgrowth of the 2017 Utah Recommended Water Strategy. Recognizing that “collaborative solutions developed by diverse stakeholders have historically proven to be the most effective means to address Utah’s water needs and to develop water policy,” the goal of H.B. 166, is to authorize creation of local basin councils as a forum for addressing watershed issues with local interests and expertise. The bill also establishes a statewide ‘Utah Watersheds Council” to provide a forum to encourage and facilitate discussion and collaboration among stakeholders on various water-related matters and also facilitate the creation of the local watershed councils. The legislation identifies 12 watersheds for local councils, including a Great Salt Lake watershed that includes not only the lake, but also the five water basins that feed the Lake and its wetlands.

Audubon will continue on the ground efforts to support these flexible mechanisms for water sharing.

Great Salt Lake Coordinator: The 2020 legislature approved funding for a Great Salt Lake Coordinator, housed within the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. The GSL Coordinator, among other responsibilities, will work with the Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, the Great Salt Lake Technical Team and the Great Salt Lake Salinity Advisory Committee. We are thrilled that Laura Vernon, recently accepted this role. She brings important expertise and will be a great asset to these organizations and Great Salt Lake.