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Utah lawmakers consider funding millions for Great Salt Lake, water conservation

By Ben Winslow - Fox 13 | Jan 30, 2024

Manuel Rodriguez, FOX 13 News

The Great Salt Lake on Dec. 4, 2023.

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 — The Utah State Legislature is being asked to spend millions on water conservation efforts and try a new way to get water into the Great Salt Lake.

Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, asked his legislative colleagues on Tuesday to spend $12 million to support ongoing efforts for a “turf buyback” program. That’s where local water districts pay you to get rid of lawn you don’t really use.

“We’ve got to do more water conservation. That’s clear to everybody,” Rep. Owens told FOX 13 News.

“Turf buyback” has existed for years in some urban area water districts. But last year, the legislature funded a statewide expansion. It has proven to be a hit. Utah’s Division of Water Resources reported that in the past year, more than four million square feet of nonfunctional turf has been removed and 104 million gallons of water saved as a result.

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

“A water-wise landscaping uses about two-thirds less water than a traditional landscaping,” said Candice Hasenyager, the division’s director.

The money would be used to continue the program. Mark Stratford, the general counsel for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, said the local water district supported the request.

“It’s not something we’re forcing people to do. It’s something they look around, they realize they can participate in it, they get something to help pay for it and then we get the public on board,” he told lawmakers on the Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

Rep. Owens is also proposing a new idea — he’s asking for $500,000 to launch a program that would pay farmers to not grow an extra crop and instead send their water downstream to the Great Salt Lake. FOX 13 News first reported on the concept earlier this month.

“This is a pilot program to get money to farmers,” he said. “It’s voluntary for farmers nothing obligatory. We’re not trying to put them out of business and fallow the farm forever, but if late in the season they’ve got extra water they want to lease it and get a payment from the state and move the water to the lake.”

The bill has support from the Utah Farm Bureau, some environmental groups and the Great Salt Lake Commissioner (the state official tasked with coming up with a plan to save the lake). “Split season leasing,” as it’s called, is one of many ideas being considered this legislative session to address the Great Salt Lake’s dramatic declines.

“It would lead to a pilot project of actual leases on the ground that would then get water to the lake,” said Tim Davis, the deputy Great Salt Lake Commissioner.

The funding requests will be considered as part of the overall state budget that lawmakers are deliberating.

Also on Tuesday, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, opened a bill file to fund a $2 million study that would explore ways to get more water from Utah Lake into the Great Salt Lake. Sen. Bramble said that as they have considered ways to restore the health of Utah Lake, he has been approached by people (including former Governor Gary Herbert) about ways they could shepherd water to help the Great Salt Lake.

The two bodies of water are joined by the Jordan River.


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