WASHINGTON — The Bush administration Wednesday endorsed a bill to sign over the title of two federal aqueducts to local Utah water users, saying it would make it easier to finance improvements to better protect the water and to prevent drownings.

However, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner John Keys, a Utahn, said many minor changes are still needed in the bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

But he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday that if those "technical corrections can be addressed, I believe the department could support passage of this legislation."

The bill would transfer title of the 42-mile long Salt Lake Aqueduct (from Deer Creek Reservoir to Salt Lake County), the 22-mile Provo Reservoir Canal (also known as the Murdock Canal) and a 4-acre maintenance shop site to the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy.

That district said it needs clear title to the facilities to obtain low-interest, tax-advantaged financing to upgrade them, including plans to completely bury the Murdock Canal.

Interest in the legislation peaked last year when two brothers drowned attempting to scuba dive in a portion of that canal that is underground now.

"Fourteen people have drowned in the Provo Reservoir Canal in the last 20 years. Enclosure would virtually eliminate this risk," testified John R. Carman, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy.

Keys noted that local water users have paid the costs of those facilities over the years, but the federal government still holds the title. He said the administration favors transferring title of such facilities when it is in the public interest, and that appears to be the case with this proposal.

Carman listed many benefits the title transfer — and financing it would allow — could bring besides preventing drownings.

He noted that most of the Murdock Canal is open and above ground, which exposes the drinking water it carries to contaminants. Covering it would improve quality, and eliminate the loss of 8 percent of the water it now carries to leaks and evaporation.

Carman said some of that water saved would likely be used to protect endangered fish in the lower Provo River.

Carman also said it could create new recreational opportunities, by converting the the Murdock Canal right of way and an adjacent service road into public trails.

Also, Carman said that while the Salt Lake Aqueduct "is generally in very good condition, we anticipate accelerating repairs in the coming decades to improve security, seismic safety and longevity of the facility."

Keys warned, however, that numerous technical issues must still be better addressed in the legislation before final passage, including ensuring all parties now entitled to water through the pipelines still receive it; working out access issues between federal and local officials; and resolving some problems with pipeline ownership across Forest Service lands.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, is sponsoring identical legislation in the House, where its Resources Committee held hearings on it last year. However, the administration at those earlier hearings said it had not had enough time to figure whether it supported the proposal then.

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