With just two weeks to go in the 2024 Legislative Session, lawmakers closed out “Water Week” on Friday with a number of bills either headed to the governor’s desk or getting close.

From overhauling how mineral companies conduct business on the Great Salt Lake to a new commission tasked with determining Utah’s future water needs, here are some water bills flowing through the legislature this year.

SB 211, the generational water infrastructure amendments bill, is one of the few bills sponsored this session by Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who wants to look 50 to 75 years into the future to determine Utah’s water needs.

The bill would create a Water Development Council made up of the state’s four largest water districts, and a governor-appointed water agent who would act as a liaison to coordinate with the council to make sure the state’s water needs are met.

Adams told reporters solving the state’s water woes will require looking beyond Utah’s borders — that could mean exploring pipelines, desalination plants, and interstate, or even international, water agreements.

In this file photo, a cloudy sky overhangs the Utah State Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 20, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“There’s opportunities that we haven’t scratched the surface of. … We’re not going to solve our water issues within the geographic bounds of the state of Utah. We’ve got to look to other states, maybe even internationally,” he said during the Senate’s media availability.

“The Mississippi (River) may be a long ways away,” Adams said, but “the Continental Divide maybe could even be bridged.”

But the bill has its critics — specifically environmental groups, who worry it will be used to promote “costly fantasies,” according to the Utah Rivers Council.

And the newly formed Water Development Council would be exempt from the Open and Public Meetings Act and the Government Records Access and Management Act. It’s for that reason that the Utah Transparency Project, an effort by a coalition of different media outlets in the state, gave the bill a “Closed Door” rating.

It passed the Senate with Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, casting the lone “no” vote. It now heads to the House.

HB 453, the Great Salt Lake revisions bill, has been called one of the most important bills for the Great Salt Lake this session, but it’s also proved to be one of the more controversial, at least among mineral companies that operate on the lake.

Sponsored by House Majority Assistant Whip Casey Snider, R-Paradise, the bill would raise the royalty rates and severance tax for companies using the lake to extract things like magnesium, lithium, salt or brine shrimp.

It would also change the system of water rights on the lake so it’s in line with the rest of the state. The “first in time, first in right doctrine” is a core tenet of water law where each water right is recognized by a priority date. The earliest date — essentially, whoever was there first — means the most senior water right.

Mud cracks are apparent along the receding edge of the Great Salt Lake near Antelope Island, Utah, Aug. 26, 2019 | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

The only water rights in the state that don’t operate under that doctrine are on the lake. What that means, Snider explained, is that water that makes it to the lake is considered “wasted” under state statute.

“Under the current legal framework that exists for water in the Great Salt Lake, every drop is available for depletion and appropriation for mineral extraction. So all of the saving we have done in agriculture, all the saving your constituents have done on their yards … is available for extraction,” Snider said on the House floor, where the bill received unanimous approval.

The bill has yet to be voted on in the Senate.

HB 280, the water related changes bill, initially attempted to centralize the decision-making around water projects, and impose a tax on water users’ water bills.

It’s a complex and controversial bill — so much so that its sponsor, Snider, said he would rather get a root canal than present it to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee in January.

But after pushback from the public and lawmakers, who had concerns over the potential imposed fees, the bill was held in committee and heavily amended, with the fee provisions moved to study items. As it currently stands, HB 280 would establish the water infrastructure fund that Snider said creates a planning process, marking a significant change in how water infrastructure projects are funded in the state.

If passed, it would create a state Water Development Council to prioritize funding for certain projects, a process currently done by local governments.

“UDOT is a great model for that,” Snider said during a committee meeting. “As you’re moving through this process, let’s have one final decision-making body.”

SB18, the water modifications bill, is a continuation of the Legislature’s efforts to expand its definition of beneficial use — essentially what the state defines as an appropriate use of water, including agricultural, industrial or municipal uses — to include conservation.

Stock image | St. George News

Last session, the Senate passed SB 277 which allows water saved through the state’s Agricultural Water Optimization Program to be classified as a beneficial use. Now, SB 18 would allow all water saved by agriculture producers to be defined as a beneficial use.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton.

Those producers could then monetize or sell that water while keeping their water right. The water could also be used to help instream flows.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously, and the House after a 66-3 vote. It’s awaiting a signature from the governor.

SB 125, the secondary water amendments bill, amends the Legislature’s effort during the 2022 session that required secondary water users to install meters. Utah is the country’s largest supplier of secondary water — untreated and unfiltered water mostly used for irrigation — and lawmakers hoped that by installing meters, users would conserve more.

But lawmakers carved out an exemption for districts that are smaller than 1,000 hookups. Now, Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron, wants to increase that exemption to include systems smaller than 2,500 hookups.

The bill was amended so the exemption would not include any tributary to the Great Salt Lake.

It passed the Senate, and received unanimous approval from the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee. The bill is now awaiting a vote from the House.

SB 118, the water efficiency amendments bill would create an incentive program for new construction projects to conserve water when landscaping. The bill earmarks just under $2 million for the Division of Water Resources to administer the incentives.

“A lot of the big water districts are doing programs very, very similar to this,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork.

The bill passed the Senate, but has yet to be considered by the House.

​​HB 11, the water efficient landscaping requirements bill, would limit “nonfunctional” grass used in new construction for government buildings within the Great Salt Lake Basin. Under the bill, only 20% of the landscaped area could have grass that doesn’t have a stated purpose.

This file photo shows work being done at the Washington City Cemetery as a part of the Flip Blitz water conservation campaign, Washington City, Utah, May 19, 2022 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“You can still have all the functional turf you want — cemeteries, parks and so forth — but if it’s only for aesthetic purposes, we’re going to put a limit on that,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, speaking on the House floor.

The bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt, said the bill sends a “signal that the municipal water users should act to conserve water to benefit the Great Salt Lake and not to look to our agriculture producers to make all of the sacrifice.”

The bill passed 51-22 in the House, and passed in the Senate 19-9. It will require another vote in the Senate before it can go to the governor’s desk.

HB 401, the water usage amendments, has an uncertain fate, assigned to a committee but yet to have a hearing.

Also sponsored by Owens, it would allow the Division of Water Resources to impose a $50 fine on people living in the Great Salt Lake Basin who water their lawns from October to the end of April. For second offenses, the fine would increase to $100.

The Great Salt Lake Basin houses some of Utah’s most populated areas, including Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties. It’s unclear when, or if, lawmakers will consider the bill.

HB 61, the water measuring and accounting amendments bill, is a “really simple” bill according to sponsor Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, who wants to add telemetry to water measuring devices.

Telemetry is the process of using sensors to automatically collect, transmit and measure data that in this case would allow the state to better account for its water in highly regulated and allocated systems.

Albrecht says it will “give the state engineer one more tool in the toolbox and help her measure rivers and streams in the state of Utah.”

The bill got approval from interim committees, the Legislative Water Task Force and Water Development Commission. It passed the House with a 71-1 vote, with Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, the only “no,” and sailed through the Senate with unanimous approval. Its next stop is the governor’s desk.

HB 62, the Utah water ways amendments bill, would create a curriculum that Utah’s schools could voluntarily use that would cover Utah’s water cycle, the history of the state’s water use and Utah’s various water systems.

Utah Water Ways, a statewide, nonprofit, public-private partnership championed by former House Speaker Brad Wilson, would create the curriculum.

Owens, the bill sponsor, made an amendment to the bill so the curriculum won’t include things like human-caused climate change, after some lawmakers raised concerns that it would promote environmentalism.

It passed the House with a 65-8 vote, and the Senate in an initial vote, though it will require final approval there before it heads to the governor.

HJR 27, the joint resolution encouraging water-efficient landscaping ordinances for new construction, would encourage municipalities in the Great Salt Lake Basin to adopt a water use and preservation policy for new construction in their general plan.

Its sponsor, Owens, presented the resolution to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee on Friday, saying 80 municipalities in the basin don’t have a water use and preservation ordinance. The resolution wouldn’t mandate anything, but “expresses its urgent call for those municipalities and counties” to adopt a plan.

“It’s basically the Legislature encouraging municipalities within the Great Salt Lake Basin to have a meaningful conversation about water conservation,” said Tim Davis, Deputy Great Salt Lake Commissioner, who spoke in favor of the resolution.

The bill passed out of committee with a unanimous favorable recommendation and is headed for the House floor.

Written by KYLE DUNPHEY, Utah News Dispatch.

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