SALT LAKE CITY — A series of bills aimed at protecting the Great Salt Lake are advancing in the Utah State Legislature.

The House Natural Resources Committee voted unanimously to support House Bill 491which creates a "Great Salt Lake commissioner" to work with state agencies and oversee a plan to save the lake.

"It tries to find a balance between all the other competing interests and work with those different agencies, work with those different governments, where’s the extra water? What can we do to shepherd water and actually get it to the lake," said House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who is sponsoring the bill.

The bill had mixed public comment. The Utah Rivers Council said it was concerned about provisions in the bill exempting the commissioner's activities from public records laws.

"What concerns us is these extra exemptions written into HB491 that could potentially hide what our state government is doing with our tax dollars," said Matt Berry, a policy specialist with the environmental group.

Rep. Schultz insisted the exemptions were centered around negotiating for water rights. He told the committee that ultimately, the information would become public record.

"It’s only the very sensitive things that are protected that we’re talking about," he said.

The Utah Waterfowl Association testified in support of the bill, while Box Elder County resident Joziah Johnson criticized the bill.

"The solution to bureaucracy is not more bureaucracy," she said.

Jim Schmidt said he liked the bill.

"Frankly, there are a lot of people that have a dog in the fight," he told Rep. Schultz. "So congratulations for putting this together."

The Great Salt Lake, which is at a historic low and presents an ecological catastrophe for northern Utah, has been named a top priority of the Utah State Legislature. But recently, environmentalists have been frustrated by a lack of progress on bills to save it. Republican leaders in the legislature insist they are serious and are pushing bills and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding toward the lake and water conservation measures.

Rep. Schultz said the bill arguably should have been run last year and warned the committee of "ecological effects that we can’t even begin to understand what would happen if the Great Salt Lake does dry up." He later told FOX 13 News the legislature is serious about saving the lake.

"We’re going to get them done. This is a top priority for not just the legislature, but our constituents. Our quality of life is at stake here," he said.

On Wednesday, more bills were introduced in the Utah State Legislature to help the lake. Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, introduced House Bill 538. It bans watering lawns from Oct. 1 to May 1 in the Great Salt Lake Basin.

"Prior to May 1 and after October 1 you can’t be watering your grass. You can still water your trees, your vegetables, you can’t be watering your grass," he said.

The bill also demands that water conserved go into the Great Salt Lake, which is something environmentalists and state agencies have recommended.

"For the first time ever, we’re going to require that conserved water actually be taken out of the reservoir and moved to the Great Salt Lake," he told FOX 13 News.

Rep. Owens, who co-chairs the legislature's bipartisan Great Salt Lake Caucus, said the bill had support from leadership. Another bill, which would impose new taxes on mineral extraction and require mitigation efforts from companies who take from the lake, was scheduled to be heard later this week.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a bill cracking down on water-wasting landscaping cleared the house on a 65-1 vote. Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, has proposed banning communities and HOAs from requiring more than 50% lawn. The bill now goes to the Senate.

An air quality bill tied to the Great Salt Lake also advanced, but not with as much steps as environmentalists had hoped for. Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, substituted his bill to regulate bromine and chlorine. A recent study claimed the chemicals from U.S. Magnesium — a company that operates on the Great Salt Lake — were responsible for as much as 25% of the Wasatch Front's pollution problems (the company denies it).

Rep. Tim Jimenez, R-Tooele, introduced an amendment to order further study.

"I don’t want to just go after bromine. I think we should study all halogens and I’d like a good study of what’s going on in the salt lake, so we can understand how this is affecting our air quality but we’re not targeting one chemical," he said.

Rep. Stoddard agreed to the amendment and the bill, which initially faced some pushback in the House Natural Resources Committee, passed unanimously.

"I think it’s an important first step so we can get the data we need to make the changes to help our inversions," Rep. Stoddard told FOX 13 News afterward.

Eliza Cowie, the policy director of the environmental group O2 Utah, said she was still glad to see the bill advance, even though the regulatory authority was stripped out of the legislation.

"We’re happy to see any movement, although we would love to see real steps and actions to control this right now," she said.


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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