Utah Senate committee confirms Great Salt Lake commissioner
Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.
SALT LAKE CITY — Brian Steed may have one of the toughest jobs in Utah government: he is tasked with saving the Great Salt Lake.
“The challenges facing the Great Salt Lake are real,” Steed said at the beginning of his Senate confirmation hearing on Monday for the position of “Great Salt Lake Commissioner.”
Steed currently directs Utah State University’s Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water & Air. He previously served as Utah Department of Natural Resources director and was a deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management. In his new role, he will have to help come up with a plan to help reverse the lake’s dramatic declines.
Last year, the Great Salt Lake hit its lowest point in recorded history as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate. The threat it presents to Utah is significant: there is reduced snowpack and water; harms to wildlife from reduced marshlands surrounding the lake; impacts to public health in the form of toxic dust storms from naturally-occurring arsenic in the now-exposed lake bed; and billions of dollars in lost economic impact generated from the lake.
The lake’s decline has set off alarm bells on Utah’s Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have advanced bills aimed at water conservation and protecting the lake, spending roughly $1 billion over the past two years. This year, the Utah State Legislature approved the creation of a commissioner who will be a central point-person to coordinate state agencies, environmental groups and other stakeholders with a mission to help the lake.
At Monday’s hearing, Steed said he would collaborate with the many groups with interests in the lake.
“There are dozens of stakeholders that care very passionately about the lake for different reasons,” he said. “We have to make sure they’re at the table and they’re heard, and they perceive themselves to be part of the solution and not on the menu.”
Steed told FOX 13 News afterward that included different viewpoints on the lake from environmentalists to agriculture.
“I think a lot of agriculture producers feel like, ‘Oh gosh, are they coming for my water?’ The reality is, we need to work with agriculture so we can find solutions for the Great Salt Lake,” he said.
Steed won a unanimous vote from the Senate Natural Resources Confirmation Committee, even winning over a lawmaker who was skeptical of the position.
“I’m hoping he brings a real plan that actually addresses these things,” Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, told FOX 13 News. “We’ve had kind of a haphazard approach. Again, I’m not 100% sure that we needed this position, but I think there’s a lot of things he can do.”
Committee Chair Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, defended the position and said Steed is well qualified for it.
“I think he’s got a big job ahead of him. I think he’s going to make an excellent, excellent first commissioner where we’ve created an advocacy around the lake where I don’t think we had that 10 years ago,” he told FOX 13 News.
The Great Salt Lake Commissioner is a very powerful position that has the authority to override state agencies if they make decisions that are deemed harmful to the lake. Steed was chosen for the job by Governor Spencer Cox, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President J. Stuart Adams.
“Everybody’s working on this, but they’re not working on it as coordinated as it could be,” Gov. Cox said Monday. “He’s going to do that. This is a good day for Utah and it’s a good day for the Great Salt Lake.”
Steed told FOX 13 News there would still need to be more policy solutions crafted around water as Utah grows. While the Great Salt Lake has risen about five feet now as a result of a record snowfall over the past winter — it remains about five feet below what is considered a healthy range.
“We are so very excited about the water we’ve had and we’re not in the crisis mode that really saw ourselves trending into last year,” Steed said. “That being said? We are going to have to make some changes. We have to be conscious about the water we use.”
Steed’s nomination will go before the full Utah State Senate as soon as next week. He is expected to easily be confirmed.