Water Issues Rise to the Surface in Utah’s 2021 Legislature

Positive outcomes for Great Salt Lake and Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement.

This year, the Utah legislature advanced a number of bills and resolutions focused on water, in an atypical session in the midst of the pandemic.

Below we highlight some important water legislation and appropriations passed in the 2021 Utah legislature, or if not passed, slated for further dialogue. Audubon will continue our work to help shape positive outcomes for Great Salt Lake and in the Colorado River Basin to protect birds and the many people who rely on these invaluable resources.

Great Salt Lake and its Wetlands – Understanding and Ensuring Water Flows

When the Concurrent Resolution to Address Declining Water Levels at the Great Salt Lake (HCR10) passed unanimously in 2019, there was no certainty where the non-binding resolution might lead. But the intent was clear—ensuring adequate water flows for Great Salt Lake and its wetlands is critical to maintaining a healthy and sustainable lake, and we need to develop policies and solutions to do so. Positioning Utah to avoid the kind of degradation and economic harm that other communities experienced when their lakes driedsuch as Owens Lake in California, Lake Urmia in Iran, or the Aral Sea in central Asia—requires us to plan and work together collaboratively now.

In response to the Resolution, a Great Salt Lake “HCR10” Steering Group was established through the Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality, and in December 2020, the multi-disciplinary group issued a report containing some 60 recommendations. In the 2021 Utah legislature, some of the Steering Group recommendations were included in two important appropriations totaling $1.02 million in next year’s state budget:

  • Groundwater Studies ($750,000) to better quantify the contribution of groundwater to Great Salt Lake and its wetlands, including shallow aquifers. Such studies can help with future planning and water management decisions affecting the lake, its wetlands and surrounding areas.
  • Water and Land Use Planning Integration Project ($270,000) to support a collaborative program that will assist local governments incorporate smart water planning into their land use and economic planning processes. While improvements in municipal and industrial (M&I) water conservation may not deliver water directly to Great Salt Lake, actions taken now to reduce future M&I water demand from a growing Utah population are critical to stretching available water supplies and avoiding large water development projects like the Bear River development that could divert significant water flows from Great Salt Lake.

As a member of the Great Salt Lake HCR10 Steering Group, Audubon worked closely with a diverse range of stakeholders in helping design recommendations and advocate for the funding of these important studies and programs.

Enhanced Protections for Migratory Bird Habitats around Great Salt Lake

The Migratory Bird Production Area (MBPA) Amendments to H.B.83 sponsored by Rep. Joel Ferry, (R-Box Elder), who farms land along the Bear River near Great Salt Lake, and signed into law by Governor Cox builds on a 2009 law that allowed landowners to designate 500 acres or more as important habitat for migratory bird production. A number of duck club properties surrounding the lake, as well as private preserves, like Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary and The Nature Conservancy’s Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, are dedicated migratory bird protection areas. However, the original designation period ended in July 2010; H.B.83 opens the designation period for a short time to allow additional lands meeting the requirements to apply for MBPA classification. Additionally, contiguous lands can now be added to existing migratory bird areas and importantly, new protections include some limitations on eminent domain. These migratory bird production areas not only protect important habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, and other waterbirds, they also protect historic and cultural values. Additionally, because many of these habitats host wetlands that are hydrologically connected to Great Salt Lake, the migratory bird production areas play an important role in maintaining its surface water inflows.

Colorado River Water and Stakeholders

Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement

Passed by Congress in December 2020, the Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement Act affirms the agreement to provide essential water and infrastructure funding for the Navajo Nation. The agreement allocates 81,500 acre-feet of water annually for the Navajo Nation in Utah and includes $200 million of funding for water projects and infrastructure on the Navajo Nation lands in Utah.

The 2021 Utah Legislature passed S.J.R. 14 Joint Resolution on Settlement of Federal Reserved Water Right Claims and S.B. 225 Navajo Water Rights Negotiation, ratifying the congressionally-approved settlement and appropriating the full $8 million for Utah’s share of the financial settlement. Future steps in finalizing the settlement will include entry of a final adjudication decree in Utah state court.

These efforts are a culmination of an important collaborative process that reinforces tribal and state sovereignty, while providing important certainty for the management of Colorado River water. Audubon supports the efforts to resolve tribal water rights, and will continue to advocate for sensible water legislation and policies.

Colorado River Authority of Utah Act

The 2021 Utah Legislature also adopted H.B.297, establishing the Utah Colorado River Authority, a six-member authority comprised of representatives from counties or water district service areas within the Colorado River area and one representative of the Governor, with the mission to “protect, conserve, use, and develop Utah’s waters of the Colorado River system.” The legislation also provides that the authority may develop a management plan ‘[t]o ensure that Utah can protect and develop the Colorado River system and to work to ensure that Utah can live within the state’s apportionment of the Colorado River system.” The Colorado River Authority received $9 million as part of a one-time non-lapsing appropriation along with $600,000 in annual funding.

While the Act allows the authority to create and consult with advisory councils on “authorized topics,” as well as coordinate with local watershed councils, Audubon encourages the newly established Utah Colorado River Authority to reach far and wide in opening a dialogue with a diverse set of Utah stakeholders on matters involving the Colorado River. A robust stakeholder process can ultimately inform and prepare Utah on Colorado River issues, including negotiations on new interim operating guidelines in 2026We encourage outreach and consultation processes that value the voices of tribes, agricultural producers, environmental conservation interests, local communities, water managers, industry, academics and many others affected by Colorado River management decisions. 

Innovation and collaboration will be crucial given the challenges facing Colorado River and its water users in the context of historic Colorado River drought conditions, decreasing snowpack, and pressures on river flows from climate change.

Utah Lake – Proposal for Utah Lake Authority

Utah Lake plays an important role in Utah’s Colorado River water management for the Wasatch Front and to the Jordan River and Great Salt Lake. A proposed bill, H.B. 364, would have established a Utah Lake Authority to replace the existing Utah Lake Commission, with broad sweeping authorities to manage Utah Lake, including the sovereign lands of its lakebed. However, the bill was not passed out of committee. The legislation, prompted in part by water quality issues facing Utah Lake, and the concepts proposed by the bill are now part of an interim multi-stakeholder discussion underway through the Utah Water Task Force. Given the implications for water management, public trust, and sustainable growth and water demand, Audubon plans to participate in the stakeholder dialogue to seek positive outcomes that value the needs of birds as well as people.