(Screenshot courtesy FOX 13)

SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox has issued a proclamation suspending any new water appropriations in the Bear, Jordan and Weber river basins in an effort to help get more water into the Great Salt Lake.

The proclamation blocks anyone from diverting un-allocated water, ensuring more water can get into the Great Salt Lake. It does continue to allow existing water rights to be used.

"Extreme drought, climate change and increased demand continue to threaten the Great Salt Lake," the governor said in a statement late Thursday. "We are united in our efforts to protect this critical resource and are taking action to ensure existing flows continue to benefit the lake. When conditions improve, the suspension can be lifted."

Utah's Department of Natural Resources, which enforces the governor's directive, said there were exceptions for nonconsumptive uses, applications that include a mitigation plan to offset depletion, and applications for small amounts of water associated with individual domestic uses. The agency said it also excludes areas of Tooele County and the West Desert outside the surveyed meander line of Great Salt Lake. The proclamation does not impact U.S. Magnesium Corporation's pending application of a canal expansion into the lake, as it was submitted before the governor's directive.

It is unclear exactly how much water this means gets into the lake, but Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen told FOX 13 News on Thursday there are at least two million acre feet that would continue to flow as a result of the governor's directive. She said she believed the proclamation would help get more water into the lake, likening it to pushing a "pause button."

"I believe that it can and it is amazing to see the support that is out there for the Great Salt Lake and everyone is listening," she said. "The conversations around the lake have changed just in this last decade or last five years and so it is great to see that support and we do, we need to understand better what is happening and have some time to do that as well."

Wilhelmsen said she did not believe the proclamation would stall development because they can seek to purchase existing water rights. What it blocks is new applications going forward.

The proclamation — which is not an executive order — has the blessing of the House Speaker and Senate President.

"Saving the Great Salt Lake and protecting our available water sources is no small task and will require significant efforts from all Utahns – government, organizations, businesses, and individuals," Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a statement. "Today’s announcement by Gov. Cox is a move in the right direction. As state leaders, we are doing everything we can to ensure Utah has enough water to meet our current needs and continue to support a growing and thriving population."

President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the move also buys time for conservation measures the legislature has already passed to go into effect.

"This past legislative session, we approved $40 million for Great Salt Lake restoration. This was part of a historic investment that allocated nearly $500 million to water infrastructure, planning and management, effectively changing decades of major water policy in Utah. We are committed to doing more to preserve and protect this critical resource," he said in a statement.

The governor's proclamation orders Wilhelmsen to prepare a report to the Utah State Legislature by Nov. 1, 2023 over whether the directive should continue or be retired after a year.

The Great Salt Lake has hit a historic low as a result of water diversion, drought and climate change. Its decline presents an ecological and economic crisis for the state with diminished snowpack, toxic dust and impacts to public health and wildlife. State leaders have rushed to try to reverse the declines, spending millions on water conservation measures and efforts to secure more water for the lake.

The Audubon Society, which has been working to secure water rights for the Great Salt Lake, praised the move.

"Given the dire situation facing Great Salt Lake, we need a wide variety of tools and policies to preserve water flows to the lake," Marcelle Shoop, the group's saline lakes director, said in a text message to FOX 13. "This proclamation allows some time to assess the situation and ensure new water appropriations don’t make the situation worse."

The move has the support from a group tasked with finding new sources of water for growth in Utah. In a joint statement, the chairs of the Legislative Water Development Commission — Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, and Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville — said they met with Wilhelmsen and "what we heard concerned us."

"Following a lengthy and thorough conversation, we fully support today’s announcement from Cov. Cox to implement a moratorium on groundwater development in the Great Salt Lake Basin. We believe the moratorium is an important step in protecting the Great Salt Lake and securing Utah’s water supply now and in the future. As a commission, we will continue to look at innovative and data-driven ways to effectively manage our state’s water resources," they said.

The group Save Our Great Salt Lake, which has pushed for legal rights for the lake itself, suggested the move was too little, too late.

"While this is a welcome signal that the state government is grappling with the reality of scarce water, we are very late into this crisis to begin restricting unallocated water. The proclamation will do nothing for existing water consumption, including the pending application of US Magnesium to use 100,000 gallons per minute of lake water," said Denise Cartwright, the group's director.

"We need a permanent in-stream flow law for Great Salt Lake. The governor’s proclamation is an important acknowledgment that water here is scarce. But the necessary next steps include a reduction in the actual water that we currently consume and a future plan to reduce water demand."

The conservation group Ducks Unlimited, which recently launched a fundraising effort to purchase and protect critical wetlands around the Great Salt Lake, praised the move.

"Unfortunately, water levels in the Great Salt Lake and Bear River have reached crisis conditions for communities and wildlife. Ducks Unlimited acknowledges the struggles facing residents who rely on a healthy watershed for their jobs and daily life,” said Adam Putnam, Ducks Unlimited CEO, in a statement to FOX 13 News.

"We cannot bring more rainfall, so our responsibility lies in working together to find new ways to manage this scarce resource. As a science-based organization, Ducks Unlimited supports Gov. Cox’s decision to pause and assess. This moratorium will allow the state additional time to ensure any water filings in this system is based on robust data."

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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