Water proposals trickle through Utah Statehouse in last days
SALT LAKE CITY — After the iconic Great Salt Lake hit its lowest level in recorded history, Utah’s Republican-majority Legislature is working to preserve the lake, incentivize conservation and prepare for a hotter, drier future.
In the final days before they adjourn, lawmakers are advancing proposals to set aside millions to divert more water to the lake, encourage the use of drought-resistant landscaping and cut down on unmetered water use through a combination of incentives and potential penalties.
Utah — which is both one of the nation’s driest states and thirstiest consumers of water on a per capita basis — is among a larger group of states confronting the realities of prolonged drought and climate change, while also trying to prepare for population growth. The state relies heavily on the over-tapped Colorado River, and its past plans to create infrastructure to siphon more river water have provoked a united outcry from other states in the region — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.
This year’s water focus is a detour from previous years for a growing state that has historically been one of the region’s most reluctant to curtail water use. Here are a few proposals on the table as lawmakers barrel toward the end of the legislative session:
In Utah, about 200,000 homes and businesses have access to essentially unlimited outdoor water in exchange for a flat fee. It’s considered some of the cheapest water in the country.
This year, lawmakers approved a plan to spend about $250 million in federal funds to rein in 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 indicated people use about 20% less water simply by knowing how much they’re using. Legislation passed by the Senate Thursday doesn’t explicitly increase the cost of the water, but lawmakers say it could help conserve the equivalent of another reservoir.
“We can’t conserve what we can’t measure,” said Utah Republican Sen. Scott Sandall.
The proposal would require all secondary water connections to have water meters by 2030, though some small rural areas would be exempted.
Great Salt Lake
Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson’s plan to set aside $40 million for a trust to save the Great Salt Lake got final approval this week and awaits signature from Gov. Spencer Cox. 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 seek to improve the water quality and restore the wetlands around the lake. The initial investment of state money is considered a first step. It’s expected to be funded with a combination of additional public and private funds in the future, Wilson has said. He cited copper company Rio Tinto’s 2021 decision 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 do this and do this right,” he said during a committee hearing this week.
‘Flip your strip’
Utah lawmakers are poised to pass new laws to encourage people and businesses to replace thirsty grass with drought-tolerant landscaping that uses less water.
A proposal from Ogden Republican Rep. Ryan Wilcox would prohibit cities, counties and homeowners’ associations from requiring residents to plant traditional grass yards, rather than “water-wise landscaping” such as mulch, rocks and plants that can be sustained with drip irrigation, not sprinklers.
Homeowners’ associations, including in Sandy and Salt Lake City, require residents to maintain grass yards. Cities including Orem and Saratoga Springs have similar municipal ordinances. Wilcox’s bill passed the House in February and awaits a vote in the Senate.
Republican Rep. Robert Spendlove wants the government to set an example in conservation. A bill he’s sponsoring would require agencies to conserve water through limiting how much grass they can plant around state-owned buildings and requiring they scale down their water consumption gradually in the next four years. It cleared the Senate Wednesday.
‘Use it or lose it’
Lawmakers are also aiming to reform a water law doctrine known as “use it or lose it” that jeopardizes property owners’ water rights for water they don’t consume, in effect, discouraging conservation.
Historically in Utah, unused water that flows past cities and farms and into the Great Salt Lake has been considered “wasted” since the body is too salty for fish or most other aquatic creatures to survive.
A plan from Republican Rep. Joel Ferry would allow farmers to let water flow downstream to the Great Salt Lake and other water bodies without the risk of losing their water rights — and get paid for it. Farmers would decide whether to sell their water, likely based on their harvests and balance sheets for the year. It awaits the governor’s signature.
Dams and pipelines
In their roughly $25 billion proposed budget, lawmakers did not earmark funds for two contested water projects in northern and southern Utah.
Senate President Stuart Adams and Sen. Jerry Stevenson said Wednesday that the budget did not include provisions funding dams along northern Utah’s Bear River. The dams would allow more water to flow to the growing population of the Wasatch Front, but potentially divert water from the largest tributary that feeds the Great Salt Lake.
The budget also does not include funding for the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, which wants to construct a pipeline to transport additional groundwater to Cedar City and the growing surrounding areas.
Conservation advocates feared lawmakers would allocate parts of Utah’s stockpile of federal infrastructure dollars to the projects, which would have facilitated more water consumption, not less. The projects remain under consideration, but the absence of earmarked funds heading into the final days of the legislative session marks a victory for environmentalists.