ST. GEORGE — Legislation creating a new state agency focused on preserving and promoting Utah’s interest in the Colorado River passed in the Utah Senate on Wednesday in a 24-3 vote.
“What this bill does is help us preserve and conserve our right to the Colorado River,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said as he presented Colorado River Amendments, designated HB 297, to the Senate floor for consideration. Adams is the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, while Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Salt Lake City, sponsored the bill in the House.
The bill was given a favorable recommendation by the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Feb. 4, followed by passage in the full House on Feb. 16 by a 61-12 vote, with two representatives absent or not voting. All of Southern Utah’s House representatives voted in favor of the bill.
While supporters of HB 297 say the bill will help give the state a much-needed edge when working with other Colorado River states, opponents claim it creates a shadowy agency that lacks transparency, denies the impacts of climate change and serves as a way to push through the Lake Powell Pipeline.
The proposed agency is called the Colorado River Authority of Utah, and it would be composed of individuals whose stated primary goal is to advocate and defend Utah’s right to use its allotted portion of the Colorado River, while also competing with other Colorado River basin states to preserve that allocation and right to develop it.
“We all know our limiting factor for growth in Utah is not our infrastructure,” Adams said. “It’s not our public lands. … It’s water. Our limiting factor for growth is water.”
Presently, 60% of Utahns gets their drinking water from the Colorado River. Of the state’s water allocation provided through the Colorado River Compact – approximately 1.4 million acres, according to state water officials – Utah has developed 54% of it. The proposed new water agency is seen as a way to help the state fight to preserve the right to develop the rest of that allocation, which includes the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Other Colorado River basin states already have similar agencies whose purpose is to compete for the water and preserve their own state’s right to the river, a fact which Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said was working against Utah.
“It’s our water. They (other states) are making moves every day to posture in the surrounding states to take our water right away from us,” Ipson said on the Senate floor. “This bill, and the products of the bill, will help us stop that nonsense.”
However, Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said he rose “in firm opposition” to the bill.
The bill creates a new “shadowy” state water agency with the express purpose of making the Lake Powell Pipeline a reality, he said. The proposed 140-mile pipeline from Lake Powell to Sand Hollow Reservoir in Washington County has stirred its own fair share of controversy over the last decade.
“This bill had been railroaded through the Utah Legislature despite widespread criticism about its climate change denial, lack of transparency and the bill’s exemption from conflict of interest laws,” Kitchen said.
The bill creates a board that oversees the new agency’s efforts, but Kitchen said it does not provide adequate representation for Native American tribes and other local groups, something which he said “appears to be by design.”
As for others saying Utah has only used 54% of its legal water allotment, Kitchen added that they do not account for the 20% decrease in flows the Colorado River has experienced over the last 20 years.
“We do not need this expansive agency,” he said, noting the agency will cost $9.6 million to set up. “We need more transparency. We need more conservation.”
Conservation groups, like the Utah Rivers Council, have argued that there isn’t much – if anything – left of the Colorado River to develop and divert. They claim the river is overallocated and overtaxed and that new projects will make the situation worse.
The Colorado River, often called the hardest working river in the West, supplies water to 40 million people across California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, as well as Mexico. However, in recent years the river has also been subject to the impacts of the changing climate and a drought that has persisted for over 20 years.
As for the Lake Powell Pipeline, while the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had approved for the project to move forward last year, that process was stalled due to the objections of six other Colorado River basin states that expressed concern over the project.
As some of those states already have agencies and teams of technical and legal experts set up for the specific purpose of protecting and promoting their own Colorado River interests, Adams said it was time Utah followed suit.
“It’s about time Utah does the same,” he said.
HB 297 passed the Senate in a 24-3 votes with two senators absent. Both Sens. Ipson and Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, voted in favor of the bill.
Because the bill was amended in the Senate, it has been placed on the House concurrence calendar for final approval.
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Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.
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