Visitors to Antelope Island State Park view the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake Friday, Jan. 28, 2022 in Antelope Island, Utah. The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi is shrinking past its lowest levels on record, raising fears of toxic dust, ecological collapse and economic consequences. But the Great Salt Lake may have new allies: conservative Republican lawmakers | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — After the iconic Great Salt Lake hits its lowest point in recorded history, Utah’s Republican-majority legislature is working to preserve the lake, encourage conservation and prepare for a future warmer and drier.
In the final days before their adjournment, lawmakers are advancing proposals to set aside millions to divert more water to the lake, encourage the use of drought-tolerant landscaping and reduce water use without meter through a combination of potential incentives and penalties.
Utah — which is both one of the driest states in the nation and the thirstiest consumers of water per capita — is part of a larger group of states facing the realities of prolonged drought and climate change, while trying to prepare for population growth. The state relies heavily on the over-exploited Colorado River and its earlier plans to create infrastructure to siphon more water from the river have prompted a united outcry from other states in the region – Arizona, California, Colorado , Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.
This year’s water focus is a departure from previous years for a growing state that has historically been one of the most reluctant in the region to reduce water use. Here are some proposals on the table as lawmakers race toward the end of the legislative session:
Dams and pipelines
In their proposed budget of about $25 billion, lawmakers failed to appropriate funds for two disputed water projects in northern and southern Utah.
Senate President Stuart Adams and Sen. Jerry Stevenson said Wednesday the budget did not include funding for dams along the Bear River in northern Utah. The dams would allow more water to flow to the growing population of the Wasatch Frontbut potentially divert water from the larger tributary that feeds the Great Salt Lake.
The budget also does not include funding for the Central Iron County Water Conservation District, which wants to build a pipeline to carry additional groundwater to Cedar City and surrounding growing areas.
Conservation advocates worried that lawmakers would allocate some of Utah’s stockpile of federal infrastructure dollars to the projects, which would have facilitated more water use, not less. The projects remain under study but the absence of dedicated funds as the last days of the legislative session approach marks a victory for environmentalists.
In Utah, approximately 200,000 homes and businesses have access to virtually unlimited outdoor water in exchange for a flat fee. It is considered one of the cheapest waters in the country.
This year, lawmakers approved a plan to spend about $250 million in federal funds to limit what’s called “secondary metering” and install meters on those connections so the amount of water they use can be measured for the first time.
The plan comes after small-scale projects reported that people are using around 20% less water just by knowing how much they are using. Legislation passed by the Senate on Thursday does not explicitly increase the cost of water, but lawmakers say it could help conserve the equivalent of another reservoir.
“We can’t store what we can’t measure,” said Republican Utah Sen. Scott Sandall.
The proposal would require all secondary water connections to be metered by 2030, although some small rural areas would be exempt.
Great Salt Lake
Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson’s plan to set aside $40 million for a trust to save the Great Salt Lake received final approval this week and is awaiting Governor Spencer Cox’s signature. The proposal would focus on ways to get more water into the shrinking lake, which hit its lowest level in recorded history last year.
It would also aim to improve water quality and restore wetlands around the lake. The initial investment of state money is considered a first step. It should be funded by a combination of additional public and private funds in the future, Wilson said. He cited copper company Rio Tinto’s decision in 2021 to donate water rights to the lake as an example of what the trust could facilitate.
“It’s a big risk if we don’t and don’t do it right,” he told a committee hearing this week.
‘Return your tape’
Utah lawmakers are set to pass new laws to encourage individuals and businesses to replace thirsty grass with drought-resistant landscaping that uses less water.
A proposal by Republican Ogden Rep. Ryan Wilcox would ban cities, counties and homeowners associations from requiring residents to plant traditional grass yards, rather than ‘water-efficient landscaping’ such as mulch, rocks and plants that can be maintained with drip irrigation, not sprinklers.
Homeowners associations, including in Sandy and Salt Lake City, require residents to maintain grass yards. Towns like Orem and Saratoga Springs have similar municipal ordinances. Wilcox’s bill passed the House in February and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
Republican Rep. Robert Spendlove wants the government to lead by example on conservation. A bill he is sponsoring would require agencies to conserve water by limiting the amount of grass they can plant around state-owned buildings and requiring them to gradually reduce their water use at the over the next four years. He authorized the Senate on Wednesday.
‘Use it or lose it’
Lawmakers also aim to reform a water law doctrine known as “use it or lose it” that jeopardizes the water rights of landowners for water they don’t consume. not, thus discouraging conservation.
Historically, in Utah, unused water that flows past towns and farms and into the Great Salt Lake has been considered “wasted” because the body is too salty for fish or most other aquatic creatures to survive. .
A plan by Republican Rep. Joel Ferry would allow farmers to let water flow downstream from the Great Salt Lake and other water bodies without risking losing their water rights — and getting paid for it. Farmers would decide whether or not to sell their water, probably based on their harvests and their balance sheets for the year. He is waiting for the governor’s signature.
Written by SAM METZ and LINDSAY WHITEHURST, Associated Press.
Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2022 Utah Legislature here.
For a complete contact list of Southern Utah Representatives and Senators, Click here.
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