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Interim panel OKs water-project bills

Utah Rivers Council and taxpayer group voice their opposition

The Lake Powell Pipeline and Bear River water development projects moved closer to reality Wednesday, with approval by an interim legislative committee for bills that would get the projects started.

Speaking against aspects of the plans were representatives of the Utah Rivers Council and the Utah Taxpayers Association. The projects could cost somewhere close to $1 billion. Any state costs ultimately must be repaid by water users, with interest.

The Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee had already supported the projects' concept. This time, the committee voted to affix its imprimatur to three bills that would actually launch them. The bills most likely will be presented to the next session of the Legislature.

Merritt Frey of the rivers council argued that the costly Bear River Project is not needed because most of the counties involved in northern Utah show a projected water surplus in 2050. For those that did not, other sources, such as expected conversion of agricultural land to residential use, could supply the shortfall.

Salt Lake County, which would have an expected shortfall of 28,000 acre-feet, could make some kind of arrangement to obtain some of Salt Lake City's expected surplus, she said.

She objected to use of sales tax money that would be used as part of the projects' funding. Even though water users would eventually repay the amount to the state, she said, she as an individual taxpayer in Salt Lake City would not get any of the water or be repaid the sales tax she would put into the fund.

Mike Jarmon of the Utah Taxpayers Association objected to the use of money that would be "earmarked" from state general tax revenue surplus funds. The proposal is to use 25 percent of this leftover money after other expenses are met; the money is in a "Rainy Day Fund," which this year amounts to about $34 million.

Earmarking that amount reduces the state's financial flexibility, he said. Instead, project funding should come from specific appropriations, he said.

"We need to have the various budget priorities competing each other for budget prioritization," Jarmon said. The danger is that the more that is earmarked, the less control there is over appropriations, he added.

"Absolutely, the Legislature could come back and change this, but it's difficult," he said.

Rep. Michael E. Noel, R-Kanab, said he can't see any other way "to even plan it and build it, much less get the rights of way bought" without using the fund.

Sen. Lyle W. Hillyard, R-Logan, who is not a member of the interim committee but supports the projects, noted Utah's "tremendous need" for the water projects and its lack of cash to pay for them without such financing arrangements.

"If you're not going to use the Rainy Day Fund for water projects, you better rename it," he said.

The $9 million or so to get the projects started is far less than they will eventually cost, he noted.

The committee supported using money from the fund.

Legislators wrestled with two competing versions of a bill to move along the Bear River Project. "Version A" would be like the Lake Powell Pipeline in that 70 percent of the water must be under contract, and all environmental assessments must be completed, before money construction money could be spent. "Version B" would have removed those requirements. The committee voted to support Version A.