SALT LAKE CITY — A series of bills have been unveiled on Utah's Capitol Hill addressing some issues with water conservation, including ensuring that saved water actually gets downstream to places like the Great Salt Lake.

The bills, obtained by FOX 13 News on Monday, were filed ahead of a meeting of the Legislative Water Development Commission, an advisory group to the Utah State Legislature on matters of water policy.

"The drought pushed us to recognize just exactly how close we are to the edge and how much we need to tackle this problem very quickly," said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who will sponsor some of the water bills in the upcoming session of the Utah State Legislature.

Some important bills will address a problem highlighted in recent reporting by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative (of which FOX 13 News is a member): the legislature has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to persuade farmers to switch to new technologies that allow crops to be grown with less water. But the state can't exactly track whether the water that is conserved actually makes it to places like the Great Salt Lake. It was something lawmakers said they fully intended to address. Bills would provide for better data to measure the impact of water conservation.

There will also be incentives for agriculture producers to give water to places like the Great Salt Lake. Farmers have also been reluctant to donate conserved water because Utah has a "use it or lose it" water system and they feared losing precious water rights.

"So there's a disincentive for the ag producer to want to save water for fear of losing the right. Recognizing that, we said let's change our statute and recognize saved water as a beneficial use so that someone who wants to save it in the ag community or converts to a more efficient system can then be compensated for the saved water," Sen. Sandall told FOX 13 News.

He said the water could go to the Great Salt Lake or another use in the system.

"The incentive now is for producers to be more efficient, save water and not fear losing their water," he added.

Environmental groups FOX 13 spoke with on Monday said they were evaluating the proposed legislation, while some started to scrutinize exactly where the saved water went.

"While the state is paying farmers to conserve water, we still need legislation to get this conserved water to Great Salt Lake. This bill provides an avenue to convert water savings to water in the lake. This change represents an important win. However, creating a condition that requires future conservation projects to donate a portion of conserved water to the state to benefit the Great Salt Lake would improve this bill significantly," said Brigham Daniels, a University of Utah professor and member of the newly-formed group Grow the Flow Utah, which advocates for the lake.

The Legislative Water Development Commission voted to support Sen. Sandall's bill on a 6-1 vote.

There are also bills drafted for better measuring systems to track water use; to track water use in schools and make that information public; and set limits on turf use on government buildings.

Another significant bill would ban outdoor watering from October to May in the Great Salt Lake Basin (Box Elder, Davis, Cache, Morgan, Rich, Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele, Utah, Wasatch and Weber counties). Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, told FOX 13 News his legislation would start with a $50 ticket for violating it. That jumps to $100 per violation for subsequent offenses.

"People when they use water in their house, 95% of that water will leave their house and go to the Great Salt Lake. But if you put water out on your grass or lawn? It will be 100% gone," he said.

Rep. Owens said the fines were designed to send a message.

"We've got to reach a tipping point where people understand that we’ve got to back off the grass," he told FOX 13 News.

Rather than vote on whether to support the proposed bill, Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, made a motion to adjourn without taking action. The commission voted to adjourn.

The Great Salt Lake hit a crisis point last year when it dropped to its lowest level in recorded history as a result of water diversion, drought and climate change. It has the potential to be an ecological catastrophe with toxic dust storms (arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical in the lake), harms to public health and wildlife and the economy (there are mining and brine shrimp industries that work on the lake with thousands of jobs and the lake-effect snow generated helps Utah's multi-billion dollar ski industry).

The bills will be considered in the 2024 legislative session that begins in January.

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.

Related Articles