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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Colorado River Authority Bill Moves To Full Senate, Some Still Concerned About Transparency

A photo of the Colorado River.
Evangelio Gonzalez
Around 60% of Utahns rely on water from the Colorado River.

A Senate committee unanimously approved a bill Thursday to create Utah’s Colorado River Authority, which would be tasked with helping the state renegotiate its share of the river.

Originally the bill allowed broad reasons to close meetings and protect records. It’s since been changed twice to come more into compliance with the state’s open meeting and record laws. Critics of the bill said it’s still not enough.

Mike O’Brien, an attorney with the Utah Media Coalition, said having a narrower scope for open meetings and records exemptions makes the bill better than when it was first introduced. But he wishes it would follow laws already there.

“The existing law was drafted with broad exceptions that are trying to cover all situations,” O’Brien said. “And so if every agency has its own particular exception then it's going to be sort of a death by a thousand cuts to the open records law and open meetings law.”

Those in favor of the bill said it’s important to keep some things behind closed doors. Renegotiations around the Colorado River’s flows will take place in the coming years, and seven western states are vying for water from the shrinking river.

Gene Shawcroft is Utah’s Upper Colorado River Commissioner. He’s argued some conversations need to be private to protect the state’s interests. He said the authority will help Utah use its water “more wisely.”

“We need and want and desperately have to use all of our water from the Colorado River as we move forward and the other states are in the same base,” Shawcroft said. “We're not trying to take their water and we want to make sure they don't use ours.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, is sponsoring the bill, along with Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. Wilson said the state is playing catch up compared to other states.

“We as a state, unfortunately, are behind the times in terms of our dedicated resources, staff, expertise and our focus on the use of the river,” Wilson said Thursday. “Our state is growing and this will ensure that not only are we protecting our use of the water for the Utahns that live here today, but we'll also be ensuring that as the state grows and develops [and] that we have the water that we deserve, that we're entitled to in future generations.”

Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said there’s still a lack of transparency when it comes to conflicts of interest in the bill. He also said he’s “displeased” about claims that Utah’s not using all of its allocation, since climate change has impacted the river’s flows.

“The climate is warming regardless of what some people may say, and as that happens, the Colorado [River] is shrinking,” Frankel said. “Other states have not been stealing Utah's water. It's a factor of Mother Nature.”

The bill now moves to the full Senate. It easily passed the House last week, 61-12.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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