Utah considers Bear Lake legislation similar to what Idaho passed earlier this year

Sep 13, 2023, 11:17 AM

Aerial View of Garden City, Utah on the shore of Bear Lake...

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers are working on a bill that would set up principles for future development in an effort to protect Bear Lake, essentially mirroring a bill Idaho lawmakers approved earlier this year for the body of water that straddles the two states.

Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, shared a draft of the bill with members of the Utah Legislative Water Development Commission on Tuesday. He worked with the community organization Bear Lake Watch to craft language that would work with Idaho’s bill.

“We’re looking to make sure that we have the same direction between at least Idaho and Utah, and we’re unified in how to manage the lake and obviously preserve it going forward,” he explained to the commission, later adding that Utah State University’s Institute of Land, Water and Air is working on a needs assessment report that may guide future legislation beyond the upcoming 2024 session.

The purpose of the proposed bill is to outline preservation goals now so they remain in place for future generations — helping future leaders preserve and protect the lake’s “natural characteristics,” said Claudia Cottle, vice president of government affairs for Bear Lake Watch. She said it should serve as a “guidepost” that remains in place as Utah lawmakers and division directors change over time.

Bear Lake is listed at 914,520 acre-feet, making it nearly ⅔ full, according to the Utah Division of Water Resources. It had been in peril before that, dropping to about 28% capacity last year before record snowpack helped it regain water levels.

“We want to make sure those are declared and put in the law, where everybody can see it, rather than another resolution — we know where those go. Nobody finds them, nobody looks at them,” Cottle said. “We want this put into the code, where people can find that.”

The proposed legislation in the draft shared Tuesday acknowledges the importance of the lake as a “highly valued resource” for irrigation, flood control, incidental power generation, native fisheries and recreation.

It also states Utah’s “desires to prevent Bear Lake’s degradation in quality and functions and to preserve and enhance Bear Lake’s unique characteristics,” while supporting the “enhancement of the operational utility of Bear Lake for irrigation storage purposes.”

“To achieve the goals of this section, the state encourages collaboration among agencies and stakeholders to help preserve and enhance such interests,” it concludes. “Nothing in this section is intended to impair or constrain the operation of Bear Lake, to interfere with or change any water rights or to appropriate any water.”

But Casey Snider, R-Paradise, raised concerns with what is proposed, saying it “speaks very much like a resolution” instead of a law. Patricia Owen, associate general counsel in the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, clarified that the law would direct the Utah agencies to comply with the code, which is different than what Idaho passed.

The commission concluded without making any action toward the proposal. The bill is expected to be submitted during next year’s legislative session, which begins on Jan. 16, 2024.

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Utah considers Bear Lake legislation similar to what Idaho passed earlier this year