SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Mike Schultz left his position on the dais to join his colleagues on the floor of the House chamber and implore them to save the Great Salt Lake.

"If we get this wrong, representatives? There will be devastating impacts," he warned.

The Speaker was urging support for House Bill 453, which is aimed at protecting the Great Salt Lake by rewriting water laws on mineral extraction. The bill reworks how mineral extraction companies can take water that's sent to the lake. It has faced opposition from some groups who have warned the bill could cost jobs.

"It's not fair to the citizens of this state who have stepped up that have put conservation first," Speaker Schultz, R-Hooper, said. "It’s not fair to the citizens of the state and investments that have been made to get water to the Great Salt Lake, to then in turn allow a company to go down there and use it at the end and deplete it."

Speaker Schultz did face some pushback from Rep. Steven Lund, R-Manti, who argued that evaporation is a part of the lake and people were looking for a scapegoat in mineral extraction industries, just like they have done with agriculture producers. Rep. Lund tried to argue that evaporation leaves minerals in the lake and it was a good thing,

"I encourage the passage of this bill, but I do take exception to the fact that we’re trying to find another person or another entity to vilify," Rep. Lund said.

Still, others rallied in support of the bill.

"A lot of people come to me and say, 'What are we doing to fill the Great Salt Lake?'" said Rep. Bridger Bolinder, R-Grantsville.

The bill passed unanimously. The Utah Manufacturers Association, which has expressed some concerns about the bill, declined to comment on its passage on Tuesday.

HB 453 is one of a series of bills advancing in this legislative session aimed at helping the Great Salt Lake, which dropped to a historic low in 2022 and presents an ecological threat to Utah in the form of toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and harms to public health and wildlife. Some bills in the legislature work to get more water that's conserved downstream toward the lake (though none of the bills explicitly dedicate water to it) and there is better tracking of what happens to saved water.

"We want to elevate the Great Salt Lake. We want to make sure that it’s healthy. We want to make sure the water that can be there, gets there and we want to do our part to get the water there," said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who is sponsoring a number of significant water bills this session.

The bills have won bipartisan support.

"We are having massive die-offs of various species and, you know, protecting the lake with those ecosystems is important as well," said Senate Minority Whip Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights. "So we are thankful to see all this legislation that’s moving toward saving the lake."

On Tuesday, the Senate Natural Resources Committee passed Senate Bill 196, which seeks to take advantage of good snowpack by working to ensure more water does make it to the Great Salt Lake through reservoir releases. Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, won support from water districts and the Great Salt Lake Commissioner's office. He agreed to keep negotiating with Sen. Sandall on the bill's language.

"Hopefully, those programs we passed in recent years and all the funding we put in place really starts to get water to the lake from the biggest users," he told FOX 13 News in an interview.

Environmental groups are feeling confident about the passage of the bills, noting how significant it is to have political support.

"It shows how important Great Salt Lake has become," Steve Erickson with the Great Basin Water Network told FOX 13 News. "It’s unfortunate it took this long and it had to come to this crisis, but we’re seeing a lot of attention and policy go forward that hopefully will help us revive the lake."

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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