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Bipartisanship on Great Salt Lake: Utah Rep. Moore, California Rep. Panetta talk water conservation

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Mar 19, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, center, and Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-California, right, chat while on an airboat tour of the Willard Bay portion of the Great Salt Lake on Monday, March 18, 2024.

Politically speaking, deep blue California and bright red Utah don’t have much in common.

But both states have ailing saline lakes that pose a public health risk — California’s Owens Lake and Utah’s Great Salt Lake. And both states are in the throes of a historic drought, making water policy a priority.

That was the theme Monday afternoon as Reps. Blake Moore, a Utah Republican, and Jimmy Panetta, a California Democrat, boarded an airboat and took off on the Great Salt Lake — how to find common ground among people whose politics you generally disagree with.

Hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Panetta was in Utah this week touring Moore’s district, including a visit to Hill Air Force Base, a meeting at Lifetime Products in Clearfield, a tour of Compass Minerals, which operates on the Great Salt Lake, and an airboat ride through Willard Bay.

Manned by Utah Department of Natural Resources officials, the airboats buzzed through the freshwater inlets of the bay, dodging patches of invasive phragmites on a warm, clear spring afternoon. Flocks of waterfowl flew past the boats, which raced at nearly 50 mph through the shallow water. “We were really hauling,” Moore said once the boat’s thundering engine shuttered silent.

Stopping in the middle of Willard Bay, Moore and Panetta acknowledged they tend to vote on opposite sides of the aisle from each other. But both stressed the importance of finding issues where their priorities align.

“Our politics are not going to be the same in a lot of areas, but the fact is you need to have this kind of relationship to find your similarities, to realize that you can work on similar issues, like water,” Panetta said.

Moore said his Republican colleagues in the House are sometimes hesitant to work on environmental issues, including legislation that would benefit the lake.

“I had several people who came up to me, from out east, and said ‘why do I care about a lake out in Utah?'” Moore said, describing the passage of his law, the Saline Lake Ecosystems in the Great Basin States Program Act. “I had to explain the bigger, broader ecosystem element to it. So yeah, they do have a tough time.”

Moore described a West-East divide in Congress — some of his colleagues from the Southern or Eastern part of the U.S., who he agrees with on most issues, don’t understand the dynamics around public land and resource management in the West. That can create opportunities for bipartisanship, where politicians from both sides of the aisle can find common ground on Western-specific issues.

“Herein lies the issue that I’ve been bringing up during this trip — it’s about trust,” said Panetta, pointing to Moore. “I trust him to give me the honest answer … and therefore I can learn from him and be able to accept the information given to me by him in order to make my judgment.”

Trust, Panetta said, is the “key ingredient to get stuff done in the United States Congress.”

However, talk of actual policy coming out of Congress to help the Great Salt Lake was absent on Monday. Moore’s bill, which was also championed by Utah Republican Mitt Romney in the Senate, directs the U.S. Geological Survey to compile data and conduct scientific assessments on saline lakes in the West to establish effective conservation measures.

Beyond compiling data, and making funding available, Moore said there isn’t much Congress can do to help the Great Salt Lake. The bulk of responsibility falls to the state, which Moore said is doing a good job.

“I think everybody along the Wasatch Front recognizes this and realizes what an issue this is. I think that’s a testament to the work our state legislature and governor’s office has done,” Moore said. “Everybody’s always going to get criticized in politics, that’s just the way it is. But the awareness they’ve created, the specific legislation, the historic funding that has come out of it … anybody who is saying they don’t care about it is just being disingenuous.”

It was Panetta’s first time being on the Great Salt Lake. He spent much of the short boat ride quizzing DNR employees on brine shrimp and duck hunting there. After stepping off the boat near Willard Bay State Park, he told Utah News Dispatch that physically being on the lake underscores the importance of protecting it.

“These are issues I’m just learning about now, realizing how important it is to have these discussions,” he said. “It’s all about the importance of water and for here, it’s the Great Salt Lake; for us it’s the balance of agriculture, the amount of fish you have going up certain rivers and making sure that water continues to flow.”

Panetta represents California’s 19th Congressional District, which is just south of San Jose and includes Monterey Bay. Panetta took Moore on a similar tour of his district recently — Monday’s event was Moore making good on his end of the bargain.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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