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Water panel backs hike in taxes to save species

SHARE Water panel backs hike in taxes to save species

The Utah Water Development Commission has endorsed the idea of raising taxes to pay the state's share of protecting endangered plants and animals.

A bill in the past Legislature would have imposed a water tax raising $40 million to $50 million during the next five years. Cost for the average residential customer would have been about $9.60 a year.Opposition from state water leaders killed this idea. Instead, a bill imposing a tax on the harvest of brine shrimp eggs was passed, raising $300,000 to $400,000 annually for endangered-species work.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, said Thursday that the brine shrimp tax doesn't generate enough money and he will try again to find revenue. He still thinks a water tax is the best option.

The Water Development Commission - which is made up of legislators and government officials - voted unanimously Thursday to support Hatch's efforts to develop an expanded tax base. But the motion neither opposed nor supported the idea of a water tax.

Ron Thompson, director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said he likes the water tax idea, which he said would be broad-based and benefit water-development agencies trying to resolve complex endangered-species problems.

Thompson is trying to develop additional water supplies for the rapidly growing St. George area while protecting several rare fish species that live in the Virgin River and its tributaries.

The Central Utah Project also faces endangered-species challenges, said Ted Stewart, director of the Utah Department of Natural Re-sources.

"This is not a rural Utah problem," he said.

Hatch said he and many others are unhappy about costly federal mandates to protect endangered species, but said the law is unlikely to be changed soon. Like it or not, he said the state needs a program to address these issues.

"We either step up to the plate and deal with it or it shuts down economic activity in the state," Thompson said.

If the Legislature decides to impose a water tax, the next question will be which water users should pay, said Fred Finlinson, a former legislator who now represents several water agencies.

Municipal districts providing drinking water objected last year to being singled out for the tax, said Finlinson.