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Cox holds event for Great Salt Lake, water conservation bills

By Ben Winslow - Fox 13 | Mar 27, 2024

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a news briefing on the final day of the Utah Legislature, Friday, March 1, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

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.

LOGAN, Utah — Governor Spencer Cox is calling attention to important pieces of legislation that he believes will benefit the Great Salt Lake and Utah’s water situation overall.

At the Northern Utah Water Users Association’s annual spring runoff conference on Tuesday, the governor held a ceremonial bill signing event for four bills designed to enhance water conservation policy. The bills deal with water infrastructure and ensuring the Great Salt Lake gets water.

“We’ve changed law that had been in place since before Utah had been a state,” Gov. Cox told reporters afterward.

Some legislation helps resolve an issue identified in reporting by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative (of which FOX 13 News is a member). Farmers are getting money from the state to switch to new water-saving technologies. But the state has had difficulty tracking what happens to that saved water and they couldn’t ensure it gets downstream to places that need it like the Great Salt Lake. Farmers were also resistant to donate water for fear of losing their precious water rights under Utah’s “use it or lose it” system.

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

“There was a great disincentive to make changes in your system because you didn’t want to lose that right,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who sponsored some of those bills.

The changes in the law will be positive for agriculture producers and the lake, he said.

“You can still hold that water right and lease it to somewhere else that needs it, lease it to someone who wants to put it in the Great Salt Lake,” Sen. Sandall told FOX 13 News in an interview Tuesday.

That will help as conservation groups and the state look to give farmers money to not grow so many crops and send the water to the Great Salt Lake. Gov. Cox, an alfalfa farmer himself, said the incentives for agriculture producers to use less water are making a difference (and he said he was looking to implement water-saving tech on his own farm).

A controversial bill that passed the Utah State Legislature had a surprise guest join the governor on stage. House Bill 453 directly impacts mineral extraction companies that work on the Great Salt Lake. When it was first proposed, some companies and industry representatives fought the legislature over it. The legislation cuts the amount of water that the companies can take from the Great Salt Lake.

What ultimately passed offers incentives for mineral extraction industries to use less water.

That won the support of Compass Minerals CEO Ed Dowling Jr., who shook hands with lawmakers as he joined the governor on stage for the signing of the bill. Speaking to FOX 13 News afterward, Dowling said the bill was “good policy.”

“The lake levels are low, we’re going to have to draw less water,” he said. “But you know that’s just life and the last thing we want to see is the lake go toxic and all of us having to deal with that sort of environment. We’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, commercially it’s the right thing to do. It’s in the best interest of shareholders and the best interest of the people of Utah.”

Dowling said Compass Minerals has not reconsidered its decision to abandon lithium extraction from the Great Salt Lake, which it announced as the legislative session was getting under way. Lithium is an increasingly critical mineral in our electrified world, but it is also a water-intensive extraction process.

Great Salt Lake Commissioner Brian Steed, who is tasked by state political leaders with enacting a plan to save the lake, told FOX 13 News he did believe these bills would ultimately be good for the state. He argued the policies will be significant when enacted.

“I’m more optimistic now than I was two years ago,” he said, referring to when the Great Salt Lake hit a historic low. “I’m more optimistic now than I was a year ago when I took this job. I think on the whole, it was a pretty good legislative session for the Great Salt Lake and I think there’s a lot to be celebrated.”

Public opinion polling shows saving the Great Salt Lake remains a top priority for Utahns. The public and environmental groups have pressured lawmakers to do more to help the lake, which dropped to a record low in 2022 as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate. The lake has risen lately because of back-to-back years of significant snowfall. Scientists predict the lake may rise another two feet this spring. However, it remains several feet below what is considered ecologically healthy.

Gov. Cox said water conservation has helped the lake recover and he thanked Utahns for doing their part.

“What Utahns did by continuing to conserve, our reservoirs are fuller than they’ve been in a long time — over 80%,” he said. “Which allows us to start releasing water in the Great Salt Lake. We think we’re going to have a really good year.”


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