SALT LAKE CITY — A program offering money to get farmers to switch to new water-saving technologies is seeing a surge in applications.

"There’s more agricultural producers that are wanting to put more innovative practices on their operations. More people that want to do their part to help the lake," said Jim Bowcutt, the conservation program manager for Utah's Department of Agriculture & Food.

The latest round of grant applications for "agriculture optimization" just wrapped up with 392 separate applications seeking roughly $60 million in funding. The majority of those applications, Bowcutt said, were in the Great Salt Lake Basin.

"This was the highest round of applications we’ve ever got," he told FOX 13 News.

The program has been viewed as a way to encourage Utah's top water user — agriculture — to use less water to help the Great Salt Lake and the rest of the state as it grapples with drought. In a 50/50 match, the state gives farmers and ranchers money if they switch from say, a pivot sprinkler system, to a more efficient drip irrigation system. The Utah State Legislature last year funded more than $200 million for the program.

But recent reporting by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative (of which FOX 13 News is a member) found that while agriculture producers are saving water with the incentives, the state can't conclusively track what is happening to the saved water. That has led to new bills for better data — though none of the bills explicitly dedicate conserved water to the Great Salt Lake.

Still, the program is saving water and the sheer volume of farmers willing to apply for incentives is seen as a positive sign for the Great Salt Lake.

"I feel good about the agriculture community and their willingness to respond to the need the lake has," Bowcutt said.

A series of bills are now moving through the Utah State Legislature on water conservation and the Great Salt Lake. One dramatically rewrites mineral extraction industry's water use on the lake, while others look to get more water into it.

Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, introduced Senate Bill 196. It calls for the Great Salt Lake Commissioner, who oversees plans to help the lake, to come up with a new plan for what to do when there's good snowpack and plenty of water to go downstream.

"Making sure we can get as much flow to the lake," Sen. Blouin told FOX 13 News on Tuesday. "Last year we saw people kind of tuned out when they saw how much water there was. We need to be focused on it and we need to be making sure there’s a plan to get it to the lake."

Another bill introduced this week in the Utah State Senate would track another big water user.

"The one big water user that we've missed and don't fully understand is our golf courses," said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 195.

The bill would formally track golf course water use in an effort to identify ways to conserve. He said some courses have gone decades without improvements to their irrigation systems. But past efforts to track golf course water use has faced stiff opposition.

"The golf courses have all really objected to someone digging into their practice because they own the water right? They have the ability to use it. They’re concerned about somebody questioning the right and they have a right to use it," he said.

So Sen. McCay is proposing to declare data on golf course water use "protected" under Utah's public records laws. That means it would not be available for the public to see. Sen. McCay defended declaring it a "protected record" as a way to ensure the bill does pass and said it is no different than data on individual household water use currently.

"Sprinkler shaming is a real issue," he told reporters on Tuesday. "What I know is everybody would like to know more about somebody else's business."

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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