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Great Salt Lake bill advances — but it's watered down

The Great Salt Lake is seen on Feb. 7. HB538, legislation designed to increase water levels in the Great Salt Lake, has advanced out of committee.

The Great Salt Lake is seen on Feb. 7. HB538, legislation designed to increase water levels in the Great Salt Lake, has advanced out of committee. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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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. Read all of our stories at

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill designed to shepherd water into the Great Salt Lake has cleared a House committee, but with a significant change.

HB538 bans outdoor watering on lawns from Oct. 1 to April 25.

"City dwellers are going to do their part," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, told the House Natural Resources Committee on Monday.

But where the bill originally said that any water conserved goes into the Great Salt Lake, that was stripped out in a substitute version. Owens acknowledged it was a "substantial piece" of the legislation.

"The water districts were complaining that that was too complicated and implicated too many water rights so we're going to have to take more time to work on that," he said.

Local water districts came to the committee with concerns about how it impacts private water users to reservoirs. Mark Stratford, the general counsel for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, said the local water districts feel it is important to preserve the water in reservoirs for future use.

"Water that is not diverted, which this bill will increase ... that water still has a high likelihood of making it to the lake. It's not a failure for the lake," he said following the hearing.

Lawmakers on the committee also had concerns about the ban and how far it goes. Some questioned whether it would hurt sod farms or tell people they can't water their shrubs or trees. Owens insisted the legislation does not and he was supportive of amendments to clarify that.

'We don't need to water'

Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake, testified in support of the bill.

"We live in the desert. I think it's time we begin acting like that," she told the committee.

HB538 passed on a 10-3 vote and now goes to the full House of Representatives for consideration. After the hearing, de Freitas said she still felt like the bill accomplished a lot even without the piece explicitly saying saved water goes into the Great Salt Lake.

"It's a very responsible, innovative approach to thinking about how we don't need to water," de Freitas said.

Owens said he would not give up on shepherding water to the lake.

"We can't talk water into the lake," he said. "We'll be working over the summer to bring back the second piece of the bill which is to require conserved water get to the lake."

We live in the desert. I think it's time we begin acting like that.

–Lynn de Freitas, Friends of Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake is at a historic low, which presents an ecological catastrophe for Utah with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and harms to public health, wildlife and the economy. HB538, which has the support of legislative leadership, is one of many being considered in the 2023 Utah Legislature to save the Great Salt Lake. Lawmakers have also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on water conservation measures.

'A holistic picture of water'

But some environmental groups are fuming over a lack of progress on getting water into the lake.

"The legislature is planning doomsday policies around the end of the Great Salt Lake, all while peddling propaganda that they're going to raise water levels when they are not," Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said in a statement Monday, criticizing two bills centered around the lake and agriculture water use.

The comments brought a rebuke from Senate President Stuart Adams, who accused the group of only complaining.

"I think it's very myopic to try to say this has to be done in this particular scope and not look at a holistic picture of water," he told reporters on Monday. "I think anybody can criticize, but nobody's tried more to conserve, optimize and develop new water sources than we have over the past few years. I'm proud of our efforts."

Great Salt Lake bill advances — but it's watered down

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