Utah 2022 Legislative Session Kicks Off Today—and It Should Be a Big Year for Water Policy

First Great Salt Lake Summit brings momentum for 2022 legislative session.

As we kick off the 2022 legislative session, Utah leaders are poised to address one of the most important issues facing the Beehive State: protecting Great Salt Lake and averting potentially catastrophic consequences of a drying lake. There is an urgency to address the lowest water levels in recorded history—since measurements began in 1847—and it will take a range of policy tools, actions and unprecedented investment to keep the lake and its wetlands healthy.

On Momentum:

Earlier this month, Utah’s Speaker of the House Brad Wilson hosted the first ever Great Salt Lake Summit. It was inspiring to hear so much energy focused on preserving Great Salt Lake. Following a series of talks on threats and solutions, the Speaker noted that “We all have an increased understanding today of the importance of the lake and the consequences of not doing the things we can do to preserve its future. We are absolutely, inextricably linked as a state to the success and the health of the Great Salt Lake.”

“The Great Salt Lake isn't just the name of our capital city or the name of a lake,” Wilson said. “It's absolutely part of the identity as to who we are as Utahns and we saw today all the impacts that it has on our everyday lives and we’ve got to work together to come together and figure out these things.”

Representative Timothy D. Hawkes referred to Great Salt Lake as a beating heart. The tributaries (rivers flowing) to Great Salt Lake are like the arteries feeding the beating heart. If the heart stops working, so too will everything that relies on it: Utahns health, our economy, and millions of migratory birds. In a follow-up Great Salt Lake Podcast, Representative Hawkes said, “People should not be hopeless, all the best science and data and experience suggest that if we act now, it’s not too late to save Great Salt Lake. We are not in a situation where we’ve lost a precious resource and we are trying to clean up the pieces afterwards, if we act today there is a very good chance that our children and grandchildren and beyond will have the lake and the benefits it affords them. It’s our namesake right, the Great Salt Lake, it’s an important resource. It touches us in ways we don’t realize, but here is the thing, all of us acting together, we can do things to protect it.”  

Great Salt Lake water levels have declined for decades, but the exceptional drought experienced across the state in 2021 certainly raised the awareness of the public and many policy makers. Still, the long-term decline has not gone unnoticed. In 2019, the Utah Legislature and Governor Herbert passed a Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels of the Great Salt Lake (HCR10). The Resolution recognizes “the critical importance of ensuring adequate water flows to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands to maintain a healthy and sustainable lake system.”

A great deal of effort has gone into developing recommendations for policies and solutions to benefit Great Salt Lake, and many of those were highlighted during the Summit. A number of those policies have been put in place over the last years, including water banking legislation and pilot projects, split-season and fixed-time water uses, and required secondary metering on all new buildings.

During the 2021 general legislative session $1.02 million was appropriated for Great Salt Lake groundwater studies and for a project to jump-start integration of water and land use planning. Both projects address recommendations from the 2020 Great Salt Lake HCR10 Steering Group Report and the 2020 Great Salt Lake Advisory Council Water Strategies Report. The Water and Land Use Planning Integration project has developed a “framework” and toolbox for municipalities and counties to begin assessing opportunities for considering water supply and conservation measures as part of their planning efforts. Phase 2 of that project will focus on workshops and more tools and technical assistance to help communities make progress incorporating water as part of their planning and management of resources.

Legislative Outlook:

There are number of water policy and funding measures being considered for this legislative session, and Governor Cox’s proposed FY23 budget also focuses the need for investments in water conservation and protecting Great Salt Lake.

We urge the legislature to move quickly to appropriate generational investments to help Utahns thrive within the limits of our water supplies, support flexible water-sharing approaches, and recognize the role the natural environment plays in the water cycle and our state’s vitality. Some of the efforts we support, include:

Great Salt Lake

  • At least $50 million in funding to benefit and preserve the natural water infrastructure of Great Salt Lake
    • In addition to $5 million appropriated in the November 2021 interim session, at least an additional $45 million for:
      • Investments to benefit Great Salt Lake for the long-term, including enhancing and retaining water flows to the lake and restoring wetlands and hydrologic connections around the lake
      • Prioritizing Great Salt Lake’s importance in integrated watershed planning and management and recognize its water needs as part of the water budget
  • Long-term dedicated funding to Great Salt Lake’s needs – H.B. 157 Sovereign Lands Revenue Amendments

Water Conservation – Municipal, Industrial and Commercial

  • $ 200 million (in addition to $50 million appropriated in the November 2021) for:
  • Water conservation plans - approaches that require water providers to adopt water conservation goals at least as stringent as regional conservation goals adopted by rule by the Utah Division of Water Resources, or to justify the reasons for a lower conservation goal - S.B. 89 – Water Amendments

Agricultural Water Optimization

  • $50 million (in addition to $20 million previously appropriated in the November 2021)for:
    • Agricultural water optimization. Ideally, such funding also will support sustaining agricultural operations that benefit return flows and habitat needs for Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetlands
  • Instream flow amendments that allow greater flexibility in water sharing, particularly where agriculture takes steps to reduce water consumption and use the savings to benefit instream flows – H.B. 33 Instream Water Flow Amendments

In addition to the Utah Legislature, at the federal level we are still advocating for the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act which would complement all of these efforts in Utah. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT (along with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR), and Rep. Blake Moore, R-UT (along with Rep. Jared Huffman, D-CA) are leading the effort to secure funding for the U.S. Geological Survey in order to establish a regional program to assess, monitor and benefit the hydrology of saline lakes in the Great Basin and the migratory birds and other wildlife dependent on those habitats. This legislation builds on scientific findings (including Audubon’s) showing that saline lakes across the Great Basin provide interconnected bird habitats, and therefore need to be assessed and managed in a way that maintains that connectivity. This will support Utah’s (and other states’) efforts to support Great Salt Lake and the network of saline lakes in the West.