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Big Water Funding Bill Passes Senate -- With Objections

Judy Fahys/KUER
Utah senators approved shifting sales tax revenues from transportation to water projects. Some say its the beginning of a fund to build the Lake Powell Pipeline to supplement water southwestern Utah gets from the Virgin River Basin.

Utah senators passed a bill Friday to start saving money for big water projects in a move opposed on environmental and fiscal grounds.

Under Senate Bill 80, sales tax revenue now earmarked for transportation projects would be split with a new water projects fund. That’s more than $35 million a year at current levels. But it’s just a fraction of the $33 billion big water districts want for updating existing water systems and tapping new resources, including Utah’s unused share of the Colorado River.

“We’re saving for the money like a 401K, knowing that someday we’re going to have the obligation of building projects,” said sponsoring Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

Supporters say the bill commits no money for big projects. But critics counter that some projects on the list aren’t even needed.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said it appears the money’s destined for a controversial project that could cost $4 billion.

“From my vantage point, it looks like a Lake Powell Pipeline; it smells like a Lake Powell Pipeline; and it drinks like a Lake Powell Pipeline,” he said before voting against the bill.

Fiscal conservatives said instead of the new fund, the free market should be allowed to work. Sen. Howard Stephenson is a Republican representing Draper and president of the Utah Taxpayers Association. He said water rates are too low in proposed project areas.

And he added: “We are taking money from the people to create a revolving loan fund that the private sector funds very well.”

Senate Bill 80 passed 19-10 Friday. It heads now to the Utah House of Representatives.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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