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Great Salt Lake proposal calls for ‘free market’ steps to keep water level up

By Tim Vandenack - Standard-Examiner | Jan 26, 2022

Courtesy Utah Rivers Council

In this screenshot from video, Zachary Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council provides details of a measure meant to bolster levels in the Great Salt Lake during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

SALT LAKE CITY — With concerns mounting about the Great Salt Lake’s future, the Utah Rivers Council has put forward a proposal aimed at protecting the lake through new fees and other measures meant to help replenish the body of water as its level dips.

Initially, the measure calls on water districts and other water rights holders to voluntarily share water to keep the lake level up. But as the lake level dwindles, new measures are triggered — purchase of water rights by the state and, eventually, a hike in fees on water used by secondary water suppliers and fees on water used by nonprofit organizations, including churches.

Instead of mandating cuts in water use as the lake’s level declines, “we are utilizing the free market to keep water levels of the Great Salt Lake higher,” said Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zachary Frankel. “We impose fees.”

Frankel unveiled the proposal Tuesday during a conference call with the media and Utah Rep. Douglas Sagers, a Tooele Republican, will sponsor the measure in the Legislature. It’s called the Great Salt Lake Drought Contingency Bill, but still didn’t have a bill number as of late Tuesday afternoon.

Notably, the measure also calls for a study into how much water the Great Salt Lake needs to boost its level to between 4,198 feet and 4,203 above sea level, what the Utah Rivers Council says is its healthy range. The study would also be focused on identifying potential sources of water to boost its level.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

The Great Salt Lake recedes from Antelope Island on May 4, 2021, near Salt Lake City.

“This is a framework to establish and articulate where the lake should be, which is something we haven’t seen out of the legislative dialogues yet,” Frankel said. “Where should the lake be and how much water do we need? We’re making a recipe for a healthy Great Salt Lake.”

As is, the current 10-year average level of the lake — the water level averaged over the past decade — is 4,194.2 feet above sea level, 3.8 feet below the minimum health level. But the spot level dipped to 4,191 feet above sea level last summer, a historic low, spurring renewed calls across the political spectrum to safeguard the body of water, emblematic of Utah.

The dip threatens some $1.3 billion in economic activity a year linked to the lake as well as the migratory birds that depend on the body of water, according to the Utah Rivers Council. What’s more, the lower water level poses an air risk stemming from the “toxic dust” blown off the exposed lake bed.

The new proposal is one of several likely to emerge during the 2022 legislative session to address the declining levels of the Great Salt Lake, a growing concern among Utah officials. Gov. Spencer Cox used the lake as a backdrop for a press conference last December to announce that $45 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds would be tapped to protect the lake.

Other proposals “are not competition because unfortunately there’s not going to be just one thing we do to save the lake. We need to do more than one thing,” Frankel said. “We’re going to need a collective set of actions.”

Per the Sagers/Utah Rivers Council measure, the most immediate action would be efforts by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to seek partners willing to share water to bolster Great Salt Lake levels. Potential partners would be water conservancy districts, irrigations districts and municipalities, among others. The study into the lake’s water needs would also be part of the first phase.

Should the 10-year level dip below 4,194 feet, the division would buy or lease water rights to bolster water levels.

If the 10-year level dips below 4,192 feet, suppliers of secondary water in the Weber, Jordan and Bear river basins would have to pay a new fee of $75 per acre-foot of water. Secondary water is used for irrigation and water earmarked for farming would be exempt from the fee.

Moreover, entities that don’t currently pay for secondary water because they are tax-exempt organizations, like universities and churches, would have to start paying a fee of $250 per acre-foot. Consumers typically pay for secondary water through their property taxes, which nonprofit entities don’t have to pay.

“These fees go to the Division of Forestry and Fire and (State) Lands and they can use that money to buy water rights. So the bill is meant to fund the acquisition of water rights for the lake,” Frankel said.

The measure, he went on, embraces free market principles by tying new fees to increased water use. “We either need to pay the full cost of our water supply and our water bill or we need to say we don’t believe in the free market. We don’t get it both ways,” he said.

Even so, he suspects the proposal could spark opposition from some of the entities that would have to pay the fees.


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