ST. GEORGE, Utah — At a meeting of the Utah Water Users Association here in sunny southern Utah, one of the biggest topics being discussed is, ironically enough, saving the Great Salt Lake.

The massive water body located hundreds of miles north was a discussion point for the association, whose members include irrigation companies, water districts, state agencies and other stakeholders. On Tuesday, the head of the Utah Water Users Association said they have a lot of be grateful for thanks to another strong winter.

"This year is a great water year. It’s been 20 years since we’ve had back-to-back snowpack and projected runoff. That’s really going to help the Great Salt Lake. That’s going to help the Colorado River," said Carly Burton, the association's executive director.

Marcelle Shoop, the saline lakes director for the Audubon Society and the head of the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, said she hoped to see the lake rise more when spring runoff starts in the coming weeks.

"Hopefully in the second year we will see the lake come up more than last year," she told FOX 13 News.

The Great Salt Lake hit its lowest level in recorded history in 2022 thanks to water diversion, drought and a changing climate, alarming Utahns across the state. It presents an ecological, public health and economic threat to the state. Political leaders have allocated hundreds of millions of dollars and passed a series of bills designed to reverse its declines.

Different groups are now readying plans to try to help save the lake. The Great Salt Lake Commissioner's Office — created by the governor and Utah State Legislature specifically to save the lake — recently released its strategic action plan.

"It'll take everyone," said Tim Davis, the deputy commissioner. "It’ll take everyone whether it’s municipal, industrial, agriculture to secure water and get that water into the lake."

The plan initially calls for 206,000 acre feet to get the lake to an intermediate level and sustain it there.

"If we’re able to secure that much conservation, get it in the lake, then we can figure out how the lake responds and figure out how much water we need," Davis told FOX 13 News.

The Great Salt Lake Commissioner has been meeting with water stakeholders like the Utah Water Users Association to get them on board with the plan.

"It's still a negotiation," said Davis. "There are definitely people who are conserving, there are people applying for ag optimization funding, half the cities in the Great Salt Lake Basin have adopted water conservation ordinances. We are working with industrial users as well to get them to commit and conserve. But we have a lot of work to do here still."

Burton said Utah political leaders have done a lot of good in advancing water conservation legislation while also protecting the interests of those who own the water rights.

"Water rights are kind of a sacred cow in Utah and you don’t just take water rights away," he said. "My thought is probably the best way to handle making sure agriculture is whole, is to allow them to lease part of their water supply especially in good years like this year," he said.

That's exactly what the Utah State Legislature did this past session in a bill sponsored by Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, that allows farmers to sell some of their water to go to the lake. A separate bill that passed makes it so water rights holders can donate their water without fear of losing their rights (Utah has basically had a "use it or lose it" policy when it comes to water).

Shoop said the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, which is run by Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy with $40 million in funding from the legislature, is also working to secure more water for the lake. The trust recently released its own five year plan which calls for securing more water for the lake and enhancing the critical wetlands around the lake.

"We’re starting this year with a baseline of 54,000 acre feet," she said of water secured for the lake by the trust. "We want to build on that so by 2028 we have 100,000 acre feet of water either protecting existing flows or new flows for Great Salt Lake."

Shoop noted that while they have made progress, the biggest transactions are likely already done.

"Going forward likely we're going to have smaller transactions," she said. "Yes, we have a number of possibilities we’re working on and again we’ve got 46,000 acre feet to get to 100,000 so we have a lot to do."

Shoop said people can do their part by conserving water, changing landscaping habits and getting involved in efforts to protect the lake.

"Trying to conserve water, ensuring we have enough to go around for environmental needs and for people is going to require all of us to work at it," 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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