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Editor's note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.
SALT LAKE CITY — A commissioner could soon oversee the Great Salt Lake's water levels and Utah's efforts to get water back into the lake.
HB491, sponsored by Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, was introduced in the Utah House of Representatives on Thursday, hours after Gov. Spencer Cox touted the prospect of someone who oversees the lake's functions in his monthly press briefing with Utah reporters. It was sent to the Utah House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee for consideration on Friday.
The bill, alternately known as the Great Salt Lake Commissioner Act, would create a commissioner position along with a staff to oversee the lake's function within the Utah Department of Natural Resources. The governor would appoint the person who would serve on a six-year term basis.
The commissioner would prepare, execute and regularly update "an approved strategic plan for the long-term health of the Great Salt Lake," including information that tracks the lake's water and salinity levels among other statistics, the bill states. He or she would meet regularly with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and also serve on the Utah Board of Water Resources, and report to the governor and Utah Legislature at least once a year.
The commissioner would also work with the newly-created Great Salt Lake Watershed Council, consult with other state agencies and "coordinate and work collaboratively with water conservancy districts that serve water users within the Great Salt Lake watershed," the bill notes. At the same time, a state agency would help provide information to the commissioner.
The commissioner would also coordinate efforts to get water into the Great Salt Lake, supervising the trust set up to pay groups to voluntarily give their water rights to allow water to flow into the lake.
"This commissioner will own the strategy for what will get water to the lake, and also make sure that the 10 other state agencies that oversee the lake in different ways execute that strategy," said Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. "There have been amazing efforts individually. This will create a more collective and unified approach to the lake."
The Great Salt Lake's levels reached an all-time low for the second-straight year in 2022, which exposed more of its toxic lake bed to the public while resulting in concerns about the lake's ecology.
Cox supported the bill on Thursday, calling it one of the final pieces needed to get water into the lake.
"We're putting the money in place, we're putting the legal structure in place, but now we've got to make sure ... that the water we save actually gets to (the lake)," he said.
But at least one group has concerns about the bill's language. Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, calls the bill "shadowy" in that it may result in "broad exemptions" to public records requests, which could veil the public from knowing how water rights are acquired, or if the commissioner is settling water rights for projects that are potentially detrimental to the lake.
The council is asking the state to consider an amendment to make the proposed role more transparent, so it's clear that the water set aside for the lake is actually going into the lake as promised.
"The public owns the water in the Great Salt Lake, and the public has a right to know what this new commissioner is doing with that water," he said. "The public should not support this bill unless amendments are included to allow transparency. ... The public has a right to know this appointed water agency is helping the lake, and not diverting its waters down more canals."
Utah lawmakers disagree.
Wilson said the bill is "not intended" to shield the public from what's going on; rather, he says it's aimed as a tactic to lower the cost of water as the state goes out and purchases rights to the lake.
"When you're negotiating contracts for extensive water, there's a right way and wrong way to do that. The wrong way to do that would be to have some of that done in the public eye and cost the taxpayers a lot more to buy water," he said.
Frankel isn't as convinced, arguing "legislators should not have a problem" letting the public see if the new agency is improving the lake or "advancing new water diversion" that would impact the lake.
That's something that the Utah Legislature will hash out in the final two weeks of the legislative session. The session ends on March 3.
Contributing: Lindsay Aerts