Utah lawmakers introduced two bills Wednesday aimed at helping the Great Salt Lake, which proponents call “historic.”
One of them is a resolution setting a specific goal for improving the lake. The other is a bill that would direct sales tax revenue toward water conservation.
A measurable target for the Great Salt Lake
The unilateral resolution, sponsored by Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, lists a number of reasons why the lake is important — among the clauses are the lake’s “significant lake-effect snowfall in the ski areas of the Wasatch front”; “the numerous mineral exploration companies and their more than 5,000 employees”; “a $1.4 billion input to the Utah state economy” and the “important nesting and feeding habitat for over 10 million birds”.
But perhaps most notable is the stated goal of bringing the lake level back to 4,198 feet, a number that Blouin says is the minimum needed to sustain the ecosystem.
The state lacks a “measurable goal,” making it difficult to know exactly what lawmakers mean when they say “save the Great Salt Lake,” says Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. “Everybody wants to save it, the Republicans, the Democrats, they all want to save it. But there is no destination.”
“We’ve created a great framework that will put water back into the lake, but we haven’t set a goal that gives us an overarching goal to work towards,” Blouin added, speaking to reporters at a news conference at the state capitol .
To reach 4,198 feet, the lake would require approximately 6.4 million acre-feet of water. The last time the lake was at this level, Blouin said, was in 2012. Currently, the lake is about 4,190 feet high, causing low levels and a vulnerability to toxic dust.
“There’s no specific timeline here,” Blouin said. “The date is, unofficially, as soon as possible.”
According to Frankel, the fastest route to 4,198 feet would require communities and industries in the Great Salt Lake basin to stop using water over the next two years while receiving average rainfall.
More money for water protection
Sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, HB286 would create a new funding mechanism for the state to acquire water rights and start conservation projects.
“We need a permanent water right for the Great Salt Lake, which has a significant volume. So the proposed legislation would divert one-sixteenth of a cent of sales tax revenue to the Great Salt Lake account to raise the water level by purchasing water,” Frankel said.
In short, lawmakers want to repurpose a construction account established in 2015 to fund the Bear River Development and the Lake Powell Pipeline, two major water diversion projects currently in limbo. Over the next five years, the Water Infrastructure Restricted Account, which collects about one-sixteenth of a cent from sales tax revenue, would funnel money into the Great Salt Lake Account.
The Lake Powell Pipeline is a $3 billion project that would encompass 80,000 acre feet of Utah’s Colorado River allotment from the Glen Canyon Dam to the St. George area. The Bear River development would divert 220,000 acre-feet from the Bear River, the Great Salt Lake’s largest water source, for communities in northern Utah.
Both projects are controversial, with environmentalists saying they could accelerate damage to the state’s aquatic ecosystems and lead to costly litigation, while proponents say they are essential to supporting Utah’s growth.
But construction is likely years away, and the idea is that while both projects are dormant, lawmakers should use the funds in the water infrastructure account to help the Great Salt Lake, which poses an imminent threat to the health of the Wasatch frontline .
“Drying up and possibly disappearing into the Great Salt Lake is the existential crisis of our economy,” Briscoe said. “We dismissed the Great Salt Lake. We ignored it. We haven’t appreciated it for too long.”
Briscoe said there are experts studying the Great Salt Lake and have determined it could be gone in five years, and his legislation is designed to respond to that timeline.
According to Frankel, the water infrastructure account has shrunk to $179 million since its inception — that money is here to stay. And Briscoe said his bill won’t hamper efforts on the Bear River project, nor the various grants to the Department of Natural Resources for dam safety, cloud seeding and deciding water rights.
But the roughly $60 million in sales tax revenue the account generates annually would give the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands greater purchasing power, which would total about $300 million over five years.
“One of the biggest obstacles (to saving the Great Salt Lake) is raising just enough money to make a difference,” said Joel Ferry, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, during a Watershed Symposium in Salt Lake County last fall .
The Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands can own water rights permanently, “so the main goal here is to give them money to buy water,” Frankel said.