House Bill 245 is called Dogs in Watershed Areas, but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cheryl Acton, says it could go by a different title.
“But it should probably be called 'taking the family dog on a Sunday drive,' because that’s really what this bill is about,” Acton said.
The bill would allow people to bring their dogs into watershed areas, so long as neither the dog nor driver exits the vehicle. Dogs are currently prohibited in a number of watershed areas, including Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, and bringing one results in a $650 fine and possible arrest. Such watershed ordinances exist because dog waste contains bacteria and other pathogens that contaminate drinking water and affect human health.
Acton, a Republican from West Jordan, says the current law is an example of governmental overreach into citizens’ private decisions. Acton argues the bill won’t impact water quality but will allow people to exercise some personal freedoms.
“For many people, their dog is their companion, especially for the elderly," Acton said. "They would like to take them with them, but many of our closest and most beautiful areas, especially in this Salt Lake Valley, are off limits to them.”
Rep. Jeff Stenquist spoke against the bill, mentioning concerns about water quality. Stenquist, a Republican from Draper, says he addressed a similar issue in Corner Canyon. Eventually, the city council passed an ordinance banning dogs there, but Stenquist says it was otherwise impossible to convince people to pick up after their pups.
“If you’ve ever been on trails, you see that sometimes they'll even bag the waste, and they'll leave them on the trail or they'll be hanging from a branch of a tree like a gross Christmas ornament,” Stenquist said.
If that sounds familiar it’s because a similar conversation has happened in Park City regarding Bonanza Flat. Dogs are banned at the Bloods Lake Trail because the lake is a drinking water source for the Girl Scouts camp. Utah Open Lands Executive Director Wendy Fisher isn’t sure HB 245 will have any impact on Bonanza Flat, and the organization hasn’t taken a position on it, but there could be enforcement issues on the Wasatch Front—unless dog owners take responsibility.
“If people are good stewards of the watershed and recognize how it affects their health and the health of others, there shouldn't be a problem,” Fisher said.
A bigger concern Fisher has is whether such a bill could lead to a loosening of watershed protections. The Trump administration in January revoked some stream protections under the Clean Water Act. Fisher worries HB 245 could be an indicator of water quality deregulation.
“We hope that this isn't something that they're saying, 'yeah, well, let's rollback regulations on watershed,'" Fisher said. "Hopefully, this is just specific to clarifying the fact that you can take your dog through Big Cottonwood Canyon, and once you're outside of the watershed ordinance, watershed area, you can let your dog out.”
The bill passed the full House Friday and will next be considered by the Senate.