On Feb. 29, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that would implement new regulations for mineral extraction at the Great Salt Lake. House Bill 453 now heads to Gov. Spencer Cox, R, who has until March 21 to sign it. 

“This will probably be one of the most impactful and most important bills that we pass ever in regard to the Great Salt Lake,” said Speaker Mike Schultz, R, during a reading of the legislation on the House floor on Feb. 13. 

HB 453 regulates water use at the declining lake in new and more rigorous ways. Historically, all the water that made it to the lake was considered wasted, and so industrial use of the salty water was encouraged. Companies like Compass Minerals and Morton Salt pump the water into shallow ponds, where it gradually evaporates, leaving behind salt and other mineral deposits. These companies have long had the right to evaporate the entire lake if they desire, but that will change under this new law. As the inland sea dries up, state lawmakers are acknowledging that the system needs to change.

“The Wild West of Great Salt Lake must now be tamed,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R, the bill’s sponsor, during a House Business and Labor Committee hearing on Feb. 7.

The Beehive State is not known for regulating industry — the state’s motto, in fact, is “Industry”— but Snider said these are “unprecedented circumstances.” The Great Salt Lake is reaching record lows at a time when companies are eager to explore its potential for lithium extraction, a process that is water-intensive but also lucrative given the current global battery metal boom. 

“The Wild West of Great Salt Lake must now be tamed.”

While some environmental groups voiced their support of the bill, others aren’t as happy with the final version. Language was cut that required companies to return the same amount of water back to the lake that it depletes. This, along with provisions that give the state power to construct additional infrastructure such as dikes, concerns Utah Rivers Council, which gave the bill a D+ in their legislative report card released on March 1.  

However, Brigham Daniels, director of the Great Salt Lake Project at the University of Utah College of Law and policy director for Grow the Flow, told High Country News that while “some of the punch” of the bill was taken out, it still makes sure industry is doing its fair share to save the lake.

The bill’s backers hope to limit the lake’s further decline and ensure that the state is fairly compensated for any minerals extracted. The severance tax on operators will increase threefold, from 2.6% to 7.8%, with a few exceptions: if non-evaporative technology is used to obtain minerals or if the company is party to a voluntary agreement to mitigate water use. The royalty agreements issued by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands will include new standards to protect the lake. The bill also addresses the speculative and evolving nature of the lithium industry by allowing the division to require a feasibility assessment before issuing a royalty agreement. 

An aerial view of the Great Salt Lake shows diverse habitats including managed wetlands, natural wetlands, salt marsh, flooded mudflats, pasture, island, upland and saltwater. Credit: Mary Anne Karren

HB 453 also tasks the state engineer, who serves as the director of the Division of Water Rights, with regulating the measurement and distribution of water rights within the historic high-elevation mark, or meander line, of the Great Salt Lake. The state engineer has the power to reduce the amount of water that water-right holders are allowed to divert from the lake, using the principle of prior appropriation, also known as “first in time, first in right.” 

Companies will be required to test and report the salinity of any water they discharge, in addition to measuring their water usage. This builds on HB 513, passed in 2023, which gives the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands the power to curtail mineral extraction when salinity levels reach a certain level. As freshwater inflows decrease due to drought and diversions, the lake’s salinity has reached dangerously high levels, threatening brine shrimp and brine fly reproduction.

Ultimately, this bill does not set many standards itself but rather tasks state agencies with rulemaking. Environmental groups have concerns that the standards will not be rigorous enough to adequately protect the lake, so that will be the next arena to watch. 

“All we’ve really done is to say, here is a race that we’re going to run and here are the general rules for the racers, and once the governor signs this thing, that’s the gun that shoots the starting shot at the race,” Daniels said. “Then we really got to figure out how this is going to work, and that is going to be done by state administrative agencies.”  

INDUSTRY’S RESPONSE TO THE BILL has been mixed. U.S. Magnesium, which currently has an agreement with the state to extract lithium from its waste ponds, supported the bill and thanked Rep. Snider for consulting the company. 

But Todd Bingham, CEO of the Utah Manufacturers Association, which represents companies such as Compass Minerals and Cargill Salt, voiced opposition. “There are three things the market doesn’t tolerate well: fear, uncertainty and doubt. And in the current legislation, in a highly capitalistic and intensive industry, this bill creates all three,” Bingham told the House Business and Labor Committee. 

The day before that hearing, Compass Minerals, which currently produces potash from the lake’s brines, announced that it was canceling its lithium extraction plans at the lake and dissolving its lithium department, despite having signed binding contracts with Ford and LG Energy Solution to supply them with lithium from the Great Salt Lake. 

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Compass Minerals told High Country News that HB 453 “did not directly impact the decision to terminate the company’s lithium project,” although the company also cited regulatory concerns as the main reason for ceasing its lithium plans. 

“The environment surrounding our lithium project today is markedly different than the one that existed a couple of years ago when we started down this path,” said Edward C. Dowling Jr., Compass Minerals’ president and CEO, in the company’s quarterly earnings news release on Feb. 7. “The simple fact is that the regulatory risks have increased significantly around this project.”

Snider, the bill’s author, expressed little sympathy for mining companies during the committee hearing.

“Welcome to agriculture,” Snider, whose family owns a farm, told the companies’ representatives. “You ought to join us in prayer that it rains.” 

By the end of the legislative session, after further negotiations with state leaders, Compass Minerals had a more positive tone. “We greatly appreciate the collaborative approach of the bill sponsors and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to ensure this legislation enables continued responsible mineral extraction as we all work toward the long-term health of the Lake,” said Dowling in a news release on Feb. 29.

Kyle Roerink, director of the Great Basin Water Network, told High Country News that this bill could potentially lead to even more mineral extraction at the lake because it now gives companies regulatory certainty. “The intent (of the bill) is to figure out how to get companies to play nicely together in the sandbox,” he said. 

“Welcome to agriculture. You ought to join us in prayer that it rains.” 

SINCE 2022, the Utah State Legislature has passed over 20 bills in an attempt to save the Great Salt Lake from ecological collapse. It updated Utah’s water law so that instream flows to the Great Salt Lake are now considered a beneficial use, and it has also invested millions of dollars in agricultural and municipal conservation. In a Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee hearing on HB 453 in late February, Snider detailed how other water users across the Great Salt Lake Basin are making cuts. Agricultural water use remains a primary cause of the lake’s decline.

“Everything that a city, municipality, anyone does to save water does nothing more than set additional water aside for extraction,” Snider said. “As it sits right now, industry has the ability to take the lake to zero.” 

The upstream users currently making cuts, such as agriculture and cities, have more senior water rights than the mineral companies. Some farmers have rights dating back to the mid-1800s when Mormon settlers first colonized the Great Salt Lake Basin. But because the water in the lake was historically considered wasted, it has largely been available for use by private companies.

“We hear from farmers that they are cautious about leasing their water rights or optimizing their water use because they’re afraid that any water that they save will just be used by industry,” said Chandler Rosenberg, deputy director of the Great Basin Water Network. “So perhaps this is a way of the state trying to say, ‘Hey, if you guys are taking water conservation seriously in agriculture, we’re going to try to ensure that industry does the same thing.’” 

While this bill may signal a shift in the state’s relationship with industry at the Great Salt Lake, other bills in the Legislature this session show that the Beehive State’s “Industry” motto is alive and well. Senate Bill 224, for example, will place the cost of keeping a coal plant open past its scheduled lifespan — including any legal fees involved — on the utility’s ratepayers.

And even though HB 453 may have a significant effect on regulating water use at the lake itself, it fails to accomplish what the Great Salt Lake commissioner, scientists, state agencies and advocates agree is the most urgent task: Getting water to the lake.

“This is a good step forward, a necessary step forward,” Rosenberg said. “But we can’t let it distract us from the fact that they (state leaders) are not getting water to the lake, and this bill does not get water to the lake.” 

Mineral evaporation ponds in Bear River Bay of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Credit: Mary Anne Karren

Brooke Larsen is the Virginia Spencer Davis Fellow for HCN, covering rural communities, agriculture and conservation. She reports from Salt Lake City, Utah. Email her at brooke.larsen@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. Follow her on Instagram @jbrookelarsen or Twitter @JBrookeLarsen.

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