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Utah lawmakers scrutinize $40 million to get water into Great Salt Lake

By Ben Winslow - Fox 13 | Oct 11, 2023
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The setting sun lights Antelope Island in the distance from the receding shore of the Great Salt Lake on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.
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Great Salt Lake Collaborative

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 -- Lawmakers are scrutinizing a multi-million dollar trust created with the goal of getting water into the Great Salt Lake.

In sometimes tense questioning on Utah's Capitol Hill on Tuesday, members of the Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee wanted to know what is happening with $40 million in taxpayer dollars allocated and where the water is. They also questioned who is overseeing the trust, which is run by a pair of environmental groups with oversight from the state.

So far, the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust has spent nearly $1.3 million and secured 64,000 acre feet of water for the lake -- some of which was donated to them by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"There is some still pending transactions that haven't been released yet," said Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands Director Jamie Barnes. "I think you'll see a lot more coming this year in water that is either leased or acquired by the trust."

"Do you feel like the trust is working adequately from the state's standpoint?" asked Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield asked Barnes.

"The state is providing oversight with that to make sure the trust is working adequately. The things we've talked about is how much water can we get to the lake and how quickly can we do that? That's really the need," she replied.

Barnes told the committee that creating a trust like this has never been done before and it was a "heavy lift" to get it up and running. Now that it is operating, she told lawmakers to anticipate more to be done to get water into the Great Salt Lake.

But Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, objected to who was awarded the bid to run the trust -- The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society. He complained about the environmental groups' work on wilderness issues in southern Utah, which he represents in the legislature.

"I was shocked when I learned that this money was turned straight over to unelected, non-governmental agencies. I don't know why the state couldn't have accomplished the same objectives if the goal is to go and buy out all the water shares from agriculture to take it out of production," he said. "I mean, let's just say that on the front end of the bill instead of getting $40 million as a trust and having it handed over to these agencies that are not elected, not handed over to the people."

The bill, personally run by House Speaker Brad Wilson in the 2022 Utah State Legislature, passed with unanimous votes in the House and Senate. It was designed to address the crisis surrounding the shrinking Great Salt Lake by getting more water into it. The lake's decline presents an ecological crisis for Utah with significant impacts to public health with toxic dust storms and reduced snowpack, as well as harms to wildlife that use the lake as a refuge and more than a billion dollars in projected harm to the economy.

The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society were the first to successfully negotiate a water lease for the lake in 2021, when they secured one from Rio Tinto-Kennecott. The trust is also made up of representatives from the Utah Farm Bureau, Ducks Unlimited, mineral companies that work on the lake and other stakeholders with oversight from the Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.

Marcelle Shoop, the director of the Audubon Society's saline lakes program and the trust's executive director, insisted work is being done to secure more water for the Great Salt Lake.

"Many of the parties who are working with us on transactions... want to have the negotiations in private," she said. "In terms of the wetlands applications, that has been an open and public process. Ultimately, the trust advisory council will make decisions as to how that ultimately will be spent."

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