Tensions ran thick Thursday as lawmakers discussed a bill that would reel in mineral extraction — and its resulting water depletion — from the struggling Great Salt Lake.
State leaders have made no secret of their displeasure with Compass Minerals, the largest extractor on the lake. The company made several announcements last year that it was about to ramp up operations and mine a motherload of lithium, even as the lake remains many feet below a healthy elevation and lawmakers have passed a flurry of reforms in an attempt to save it.
“Great Salt Lake as it relates to mineral extraction is the Wild West,” said Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, the bill’s sponsor. “And … the wild west of the Great Salt Lake must now be tamed.”
Companies like Compass pull minerals from the Great Salt Lake’s water by pumping its brine into massive shallow ponds and evaporating it, concentrating the materials into things like salts, potash fertilizer and magnesium.
The industry uses a substantial amount of water, accounting for about 7% of water depletions from the lake and about six times the depletions lost to evaporation from all the reservoirs in the Great Salt Lake Basin. Agriculture, by comparison, uses 63.5% of the water that would otherwise flow to the lake, and cities and other industries use about 16%.
Compass uses around 145,000 acre-feet of water a year, according to information reported to the Division of Water Rights, although it has used less in recent years due to declining lake levels. Only about 55,000 acre-feet a year has been pumped out of the Great Salt Lake into evaporation ponds in the last few years, a spokesperson for Compass Minerals said.
The company has enough water rights to deplete as much as 428,000 acre-feet, however, as long as it has access to the brine. Lawmakers feared it would do just that with its expansion into lithium production.
“Juxtaposition that … upstream with senior water right holders in agriculture,” Snider told the House Business and Labor Committee Thursday. “They are taking significant cuts in their water, we as a state are making significant investments in water to save the Great Salt Lake. And [despite] all of those cuts and all of those expenditures … those waters [are allowed] to be extracted by mineral companies.”
The proposed legislation would task the state engineer with curbing extractors’ water consumption to help the lake recover. Extraction companies have some of the most junior water rights in the system, while farmers cutting back have some of the oldest rights. But even when the state pays farmers to lease those rights for the benefit of the Great Salt Lake, there’s nothing to stop extractors from siphoning the water away.
“We had a conversation with a mineral company that said, ‘What will we do now if we cannot extract water, even if it is there?’” Snider said. “And my response to them was, ‘Welcome to agriculture, you ought to join us in prayer that it rains.’”
HB 453 also requires extractors to prevent wasting the lake’s minerals and natural resources. They must agree to preserve the lake’s ecology and healthy salinity levels. It also allows the state to acquire and remove solar evaporation ponds through eminent domain.
The bill addresses all the new companies with largely untested technologies eyeing the Great Salt Lake for lithium extraction as well. A subsidiary of California-based Lilac Solutions recently filed for a whopping 225,000 acre-feet of water rights from the Great Salt Lake, but claimed its method would put all the water back once it removed the material.
Under HB 453, however, pilot programs to test technologies like Lilac’s would be limited to nine months and use no more than five-acre feet of lake brine.
Lawmakers push back on Compass’s complaints
Environmental groups, Utah resource managers, the Great Salt Lake Commissioner and even US Magnesium — the second-largest extractor on the lake — all largely spoke in favor of the bill.
Conspicuously absent was a lobbyist from Compass Minerals. But Todd Bingham, president and CEO of Utah Manufacturers Association, spoke on behalf of extractors like Morton Salt, Cargill Salt and Compass.
“Mineral development companies are wholly dependent upon lake levels and upon water getting to the lake for their economic viability,” Bingham said. “Unfortunately, current language in this draft not only limits but inhibits the development of critical minerals, including lithium.”
After its dust-up with lawmakers last year, Kansas-based Compass announced it had mothballed its lithium plans in November, blaming regulations in Utah. It hired a new CEO in January.
“There are three things that the market doesn’t tolerate well,” Bingham continued. “Fear, uncertainty and doubt. … This bill creates all three.”
But Schultz, the house speaker who’s been a vocal critic of Compass, bristled at those comments.
“Compass … they aren’t doing anything on the lake, to be honest with you,” Schultz said. “I’ve asked them since July to come up with a proposal to address this. We’ve yet to see anything.”
That kicked off a tense back-and-forth between Bingham and Schultz, with Bingham claiming he’d been “uninvited” to the negotiation table and ignored by the bill sponsor. But Schultz held firm that Compass in particular has refused to make concessions.
“I know I’m taking a big risk here, Mr. Speaker,” Bingham said, noting he was talking about his own organization and not a specific company. “We want to be involved in this dialogue and discussion. But we need to be included.”
Bingham ultimately conceded that a member of his team was involved in ongoing technical discussions.
Schultz expressed annoyance that Compass issued another statement about its lithium suspension Thursday, seemingly timed to correspond with the committee’s hearing on HB 453. A spokesperson for Compass said the announcement was entirely coincidental and had been scheduled weeks in advance as part of a quarterly earnings report.
He noted other companies have been willing to explore lithium despite the state’s extraction constraints — US Magnesium is mining lithium from its existing waste piles, while others are testing technologies that don’t evaporate water.
Bingham noted he did not represent US Magnesium.
“The current laws that are in place allow that lake to be drained down to nothing,” Schutlz said. “At the same time … we have laws in place that put water restrictions on every other water right that feeds that lake. I don’t think it’s fair.”
Shutlz complained that rather that finding a compromise, Compass continues to stall. He added his aim was not to put the extraction companies out of business.
“I love industry. I love those minerals that are produced on those lakes. I use some of them in my vitamins every day, they’re in our foods every day, they’re in our pop cans that are sitting up here. They were just spread on the roads as salt,” Shultz said. “But we have an obligation and a moral duty to come together and find a way forward.”
The committee unanimously voted to move the bill to the House floor with a favorable recommendation.
Editor’s note 3:01 p.m., Friday, Feb. 9: This story has been updated to include information from a Compass Minerals spokesperson.
This article is published through The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aim to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.