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New proposal pays Utah farmers to send water to Great Salt Lake

By Ben Winslow - Fox 13 News | Jan 6, 2024

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

The beach shows the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, at Antelope Island.

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 — A new proposal on Utah’s Capitol Hill would pay farmers to send some of their water to the Great Salt Lake instead of trying to eke out another harvest.

It seeks to balance competing interests of agriculture’s demand for water for food and crops and the demand to save the Great Salt Lake to stave off an ecological crisis.

“Hopefully it’s going to move some of that ag water to the lake in a way that makes everyone happy,” said Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, who is sponsoring the measure.

Rep. Owens is proposing “split season leasing.” It offers to compensate farmers for not growing late-season crops and, in exchange, they’d send the water they’d typically use for that crop down to the lake.

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

The idea has been negotiated for months on Capitol Hill and has the support of the Utah Farm Bureau, a powerful agriculture group that represents the state’s farmers and ranchers.

“If a farmer’s growing, say alfalfa, which has three or four harvests a year, he may get up through the second harvest in July and say ‘I don’t have enough water for the rest of the year for a really good crop.’ So instead of letting that water go to a mediocre crop, let’s find a way to put it in the river and send it to the lake,” said Warren Peterson, who handles water policy for the Utah Farm Bureau.

Farmers wouldn’t lose their water rights and they’d be compensated at a market rate. Rep. Owens is a co-chair of the Utah State Legislature’s bipartisan Great Salt Lake Caucus, which handles bills that impact the lake.

“I hope this can get us a couple hundred thousand acre feet a year,” he told FOX 13 News. “We’ll have to see how it plays out.”

The Great Salt Lake dropped to a historic low in 2022 as a result of water diversion, drought and climate change. It presents an ecological threat to Utah with toxic dust from an exposed lake bed (arsenic is a naturally occurring mineral in the lake), reduced snowpack and impacts to public health, wildlife and the economy. Political leaders have reacted with alarm, spending more than $1 billion over the past two years and passing bills to enact water conservation measures.

Agriculture, which is the state’s top water user, has been a big focus. The state is offering money to get farmers to switch to newer, more water-saving technologies. But the trick is getting water that’s saved into the Great Salt Lake. Recent reporting from the Great Salt Lake Collaborative (of which FOX 13 News is a member) found the state can’t exactly track saved water getting to the lake. That will be the subject of another bill in the upcoming legislative session.

How much money the legislature allocates for split season leasing remains to be seen. But the Utah Farm Bureau’s support is significant in getting it through the legislative branch.

“Farmers should make money doing what they’re doing,” Peterson told FOX 13 News. “If this is a way for a farmer in his business enterprise to make that viable and help the lake at the same time? We should do it.”

Rep. Owens’ proposal also has the support of the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake.

“This would be one of those water tools that is important to exercise to bring water to Great Salt Lake,” said Lynn de Freitas, the group’s director.


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