The state of the Great Salt Lake has received a lot of attention over the past year. A historic drought has resulted in record low lake levels, and state leaders have made it a priority to do something about it.
Caroline Ballard spoke with Emily Means, political journalist and co-host of KUER’s political podcast State Street, to talk about how the Utah legislature is addressing this issue. They also reviewed the biggest bills making headlines during the third week of the legislative session.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: We had a historic drought last year, so that certainly didn’t help the lake. But what else is going on to get it to those really low levels?
Emily means: One of the main reasons the lake is so low is due to decades of diversion of water from natural sources for uses such as agriculture, lawns, brushing teeth, showering – just uses daily. This means the water is not going into the lake. If the lake continues to dry up, it could have disastrous consequences. We are talking about negative air quality and public health impacts due to toxic dust storms from the dry lake bed. Scientists also say it will harm Utah’s snowpack. And there are also financial impacts. The lake contributes approximately $1 billion to Utah’s economy through brine shrimp harvesting, mineral mining, and recreation. So there’s a lot at stake here.
CB: Before the start of the legislative session in January, there was this big peak on what to do about the lake. What is emerging from these discussions and what is the legislature doing about it?
EM: Speaker of the House Brad Wilson really did [the] The Great Salt Lake is his “thing” this year, and at this summit he said now is the time to tackle the shrinking lake. So this legislative session we see a lot of general water conservation bills, which will be good for the lake. But there are two bills in particular that are specifically aimed at helping the lake. [H.B. 157] creates a fund for the Great Salt Lake that allows revenues from mining to be allocated to the management of lake levels. And the other bill [H.B. 33] formally recognizes that keeping water in natural sources is a good thing, and would allow a water right holder – such as a farmer – to be paid by a conservation organization or the state to keep the water in these natural sources like rivers and streams, and thus the water will flow to the lake. Someone called them the Peanut Butter and Jelly Bills for the Great Salt Lake. They really go hand in hand to solve this problem.
CB: What else should legislators do about it?
EM: Well, the scientists, lawmakers, and environmentalists we’ve spoken to about this issue all say that what’s happening in the Legislative Assembly is a good step, but by itself it won’t be enough to save the lake. There is one big project that heads of state still support that really contradicts their lake restoration goals. The Bear River Project will divert water from the Bear River, which is the lake’s largest tributary, to support population growth in northern Utah. Environmentalists say that if this project goes ahead, it will be devastating for the Great Salt Lake.
CB: Well, the lake is certainly on a lot of people’s minds right now, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the Legislative Assembly. What else happened this week?
EM: Lawmakers have backed putting free periodicals like tampons and pads in public school bathrooms. They see this as an accessibility issue. And it’s an invoice [H.B. 162] which the House passed unanimously. It is truly remarkable.
There is also a measure being developed that would allow translate utah driver license examination in languages other than English. Currently, only refugees and people who are granted asylum can take it in their native language. And so now [H.B.130 is] for the whole House to debate.
And on Friday morning, we learned that Republican leaders in the House did not support a bill to repeal the death penalty here in Utah. This bill [H.B. 147] is sponsored by Republicans, and it is the third time in five years that there has been an effort to end the death penalty. That House leaders are speaking out against this bill is not a good sign for him. But the Senate president said he was keeping an open mind on the matter.