(Screenshot courtesy FOX 13)

SALT LAKE CITY — With dozens of bills coming in the Utah State Legislature dealing with water, a small group of lawmakers have formed a special caucus focused on helping the Great Salt Lake.

"We're not going to hold press conferences. It’s a behind-the-scenes working group to make sure all the areas that needs addressing to help the Great Salt Lake pass," Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, one of the chairs of the newly-formed "Great Salt Lake Caucus," told FOX 13 News.

The caucus membership is small and so far closed, but it was formed with the blessing of House and Senate leadership. It is made up of Republicans and Democrats.

"We're not going to grandstand on this. We’re not going to wave our flag and say this, that or the other," said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, a co-chair of the caucus. "But what he [Rep. Owens] and I are doing with the blessing of the President and Speaker is coming up with a list of ideas to move this forward."

Caucuses on Utah's Capitol Hill can help coalesce lawmakers around big issues and bills that can help solve problems. There are caucuses in the legislature for a number of causes including clean air, rural issues, tech and tourism.

"I think the Great Salt Lake Caucus helps us look at types of legislation that will help," Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, told FOX 13 News. "I think it helps us shepherd the legislation through on a bipartisan basis."

The Great Salt Lake is at its lowest point in recorded history as a result of water diversion, drought and climate change. The harms from an exposed lake bed present an environmental and economic crisis for the state with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack, impacts to wildlife and public health.

Rep. Owens said he is optimistic the legislature will pass a lot of bills that will reverse the historic declines of the lake.

"I think there’s a strong willingness on the part of leadership and on a bipartisan basis to get it done," he said.

Marcelle Shoop, the saline lakes director for the Audubon Society, said the caucus is a good thing.

"I think that’s an important step forward and hopefully that caucus will continue to grow," she said Tuesday.

The Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy received $40 million from the legislature last year to form a Great Salt Lake Trust with the goal of buying or leasing water rights for the lake. On Tuesday, the group announced it had formed an advisory council made up of lake-related stakeholders including environmental, agricultural, mineral, wetland and wildlife groups to help secure water.

The council is a key step for efforts to secure water, Shoop said, allowing the group to solicit private financial donations and offers of water. People interested in contributing can go to gslwatertrust.org.

"There’s a lot of work that goes into trying to lease or acquire water for Great Salt Lake," she said. "We’ve been putting in place a lot of efforts to progress transactions for Great Salt 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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