Brad Wilson optimistic about future of Great Salt Lake on last day as House speaker

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, talks to reporters in his office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Wilson is resigning from the Utah Legislature to run for U.S. Senate.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, talks to reporters in his office at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Wilson is resigning from the Utah Legislature to run for U.S. Senate. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The shelves and walls of Brad Wilson's office at the Utah Capitol were bare — the knickknacks, photos and replica of the new Utah state flag having already been packed away — when the soon-to-be former Utah House speaker met with reporters Wednesday.

A painting of Zion National Park hanging behind Wilson's desk was the only reminder the office still belonged to him, for a few more hours at least.

Wilson struck a reflective tone on his final day in the Utah Legislature, telling reporters it was an "interesting, kind of wistful day for me."

The speaker spoke of his first day as a lawmaker, being elected as a Republican from Kaysville in 2010. He said he didn't expect to spend more than a few years in the chamber.

"Little did I know that I'd end up in this corner office for five of these years," Wilson said.

In an op-ed published in the Deseret News Tuesday, he admitted he knew little about the personalities or the policies of the lawmakers who preceded him as speaker prior to his election to the role in 2018.

Now, as Wilson prepares to pass the gavel to House Majority Leader Mike Schultz to pursue a 2024 Senate campaign, his own legacy may well be shaped by the success or failure of future lawmakers protecting another of Utah's iconic landmarks: the Great Salt Lake.

Outgoing House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, laughs after having a fan boat named after him at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Outgoing House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, laughs after having a fan boat named after him at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Saving the Great Salt Lake

As speaker, Wilson has overseen a series of bills aimed at protecting the shrinking Great Salt Lake and has hosted a pair of annual summits dedicated to lake preservation efforts.

While he seemed pleased with progress made so far, Wilson acknowledged "we're ... two to three years in on a 10-year journey," and things may get more difficult going forward.

"In some ways, the low-hanging fruit has been picked and it's going to get harder, but we all know that water is one of those issues that will never go away and we've got to change the way we think about it," he said. "The good news that I feel really matters the most is the high degree of commitment across the aisle — across the Capitol in both chambers — around water and we've really changed the dialogue."


This is, for me, the biggest cultural change I've seen in my 13 years here in terms of the general public, has been how quickly they changed their thinking on water. We just have to keep at it.

–Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson


Wilson isn't the only one who associates his speakership with efforts to save the lake. Several fellow lawmakers and state officials christened a Great Salt Lake fan boat in his honor Wednesday, toasting the outgoing speaker and newly-named "Wilson's Water Warrior" with sparkling cider — or "Utah champagne" — on the steps at the Capitol.

"This airboat's not fancy," Joel Ferry, executive director at the Department of Natural Resources, told Wilson. "It's a workhorse, as are you. ... I was looking back when you started in the House, a few less gray hairs ... a few less wrinkles, but you're better off for having done the work.

"(The boat) has a lot of good years ahead of it and I'm hopeful that you do as well."

Not everyone is satisfied with the steps taken by lawmakers. Some advocates have expressed frustration that the state hasn't set an elevation goal for the lake and have called for more drastic action to be taken.

Policymakers still have their work cut out for them, but Wilson told KSL.com he's optimistic a broader cultural change is taking place around water in the state.

"You look at how people change their behaviors around watering their yard, it's about flipping their strips, around all the things that we're asking them to do," he said. "This is, for me, the biggest cultural change I've seen in my 13 years here in terms of the general public, has been how quickly they changed their thinking on water. We just have to keep at it."

When asked if lawmakers will be able to save the lake, he responded, "Absolutely."

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, talks to reporters in his office at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, talks to reporters in his office at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

Trust in the Legislature

After winning the Republican caucus vote to be the next House Speaker, Schultz praised Wilson for his leadership, in both public and private.

"He did so many amazing, great things for the state of Utah. His list of things and accomplishments that he did and how he made the state better is endless, but I think the things that we don't talk about all the time ... is the way that he made people feel and how his leadership skills actually elevated everybody," he said. "He leaves some huge shoes to fill."

As he takes over the role, Schultz said he wants the Utah House of Representatives to better earn the trust of voters, citing a declining trust in government institutions.

When asked whether Utahns trust lawmakers to act in the best interest of constituents, Wilson said, "We try really hard, and so do my colleagues."

Hearing constituent concerns doesn't always translate to a change in policy because it's impossible to make everyone happy, but he said lawmakers take input from voters on both sides of every issue to try to make the best decision.

"Here's the thing, I'm a multi-generation Utahn, and most of the people that serve, in their hearts ... want to make sure that when they're done here, they leave the place better than they found it," Wilson said. "At the end of the day, that's all I care about. Is this place just a little bit better because I was here? And if this place is better, the state is better, and I really believe that's how people feel."

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Bridger Beal-Cvetko covers Utah politics, Salt Lake County communities and breaking news for KSL.com. He is a graduate of Utah Valley University.

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