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Water-Funding, Oversight Bills Pass House

Judy Fahys/KUER
The Lake Powell Pipeline would allow Utah to develop the state's untapped share of the Colorado River for the thirsty southwestern part of the state at the cost of more than $1 billion. SB80 would help finance the project with statewide sales tax money.

Water managers warn that Utah faces over $30 billion in water needs in coming decades. But auditors reported last year that the state’s water oversight is too patchy to know what projects are really needed.

The State Legislature’s answer to these issues is embodied in a pair of bills that House members approved Wednesday to start a kind of water-project savings account and to oversee those projects.

“I believe in the system,” said Rep. Lee Perry, R-Box Elder County. “I believe in the people who will be here to serve us will do the right things with this money if we’ll give them the chance. But if we don’t put it away, it won’t be there for them.

In SB80, sales taxes that all Utahns pay will pump millions into the new fund each year. And a related bill that also passed Wednesday, SB251, would put the billion-dollar Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Project first in line for the money.

Reforms like water conservation and market pricing would be overseen by the agency the audit largely blamed for sloppy management, the Utah Division of Water Resources, and the State Water Development Commission that’s largely comprised of water districts.

Rep. Brian King, D- Salt Lake City, basically said lawmakers were putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

“You can’t effectively put into place in the same bill,” he said, “a plan to conserve while at the same time you put in place a plan to expend, a plan to build the projects.”

House members voted, 48 to 26, to pass SB 80 and, 60 to 14, to pass SB251. The votes sent to the Senate, which has until midnight to finalize them.

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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