SALT LAKE CITY — A significant bill has been introduced in the Utah State Legislature aimed at helping reverse the Great Salt Lake's declines.

House Bill 453, sponsored by Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, does several things. It creates a system that better measures what happens to conserved water.

"We create a system for measuring and monitoring in the Great Salt Lake Basin as it moves through," he said in an interview with FOX 13 News ahead of the bill's release.

It's a problem the Great Salt Lake Collaborative (of which FOX 13 News is a member) identified in recent reporting on the state's agriculture optimization program. Lawmakers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to get farmers and ranchers to switch to newer, water-saving technologies. But the state cannot exactly track if that saved water gets to the Great Salt Lake.

HB 453 would also more closely monitor the Great Salt Lake's health. But it does not set an elevation range, which is something supported by environmental groups, the Great Salt Lake Commissioner and even Governor Spencer Cox.

"Elevation outside of the triage levels is not contemplated in this bill. Elevation does not work as the primary determinant of where the lake needs to be," Rep. Snider told FOX 13 News. "It is something that should cause alarm when it hits certain thresholds."

Instead, Rep. Snider said he would like to see the salinity level of the Great Salt Lake be the primary metric. On Thursday, he appeared before the legislature's Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee to ask for funding for infrastructure changes to the Union Pacific Causeway that divides the lake's north and south arms. State officials raised and lowered the berm on the causeway to prop up the salinity levels when the lake was in its most severe crisis.

"Too little salinity in the lake is actually a bad thing for that system, bad for brine shrimp, and too much creates a system where we have total ecologic collapse. We’re shooting for a range," Rep. Snider insisted.

HB 453 would also rewrite some of the rules governing mineral extraction on the Great Salt Lake. While some of the minerals in the lake — like lithium — are increasingly important in an electrified world, the processes to get them can be water-intensive.

"They operate in a world that saw the Great Salt Lake and the water in it as useless. Their water rights as they sit now say 'If there’s water there? I can use it.' There is nothing nefarious with that at all. What is happening in practice is in 1960, 1970, 1980 junior water in the lake is having a greater impact in the lake as opposed to senior water upstream," Rep. Snider said. "So we’re saving with farms, we’re saving with cities 1860 water, some of the most valuable water in the state and we’re sending it to the great salt lake where it has no value in the eyes of the law other than it can be used for extraction. We have to change that."

The bill requires the Utah State Engineer to develop a plan to govern water distribution rights for mineral extraction. In a statement to FOX 13 News, the Utah Manufacturers Association, which represents mineral extraction companies, said it has concerns and is attempting to negotiate with the sponsor.

"While we will continue to engage in such a negotiation effort, we are concerned the bill takes a punitive approach rather than one of incentivizing and encouraging collaboration. A punitive approach in any such legislation threatens thousands of jobs the industry has provided for decades," said UMA President Todd Bingham.

One environmental group said it was supportive of legislation that helps the lake.

"National Audubon Society supports efforts to protect Great Salt Lake and its irreplaceable wetlands. We work with many policymakers to address water challenges facing Great Salt Lake and we support endeavors that build on the important work of the last few years," said Marcelle Shoop, the Audubon Society's saline lakes director.

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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