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Interim committee backs 2 major water projects

Lake Powell, Bear River diversions may take years

An interim legislative committee voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to support what are billed as the last two major water projects that could be constructed in Utah — the 127-mile pipeline from Lake Powell to the St. George region and the Bear River Project in northern Utah.

The price tag in present dollars is estimated at $370 million for the six-foot-diameter pipeline and associated facilities ($114 million more if Cedar City gets a spur pipeline) and $700 million for the Bear River project, with its diversion, pipeline and reservoir.

The total cited in the report's summary is "more than $814 million in today's dollars." However, when the projects' separate figures are added up, the total is more than $1 billion; it was unclear if inflation is part of that total.

Expected future growth and water needs were cited as the reason for the projects.

Only Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, voted against the plan, of the 19-member Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee. Without debate, the joint committee voted to work on legislation to support the effort. While water may not be delivered for 20 years, this is the time to begin planning, said Utah Treasurer Ed Alter, who briefed the committee.

Otherwise, the cost of buying property and rights of way are certain to soar, according to project planners.

Joining the interim committee in House of Representatives were members of the task force, appointed by then-Gov. Olene Walker, who studied the matter and wrote the report on how the projects could be carried out.

Alter emphasized that a basic premise of the projects was that all money would be repaid, with interest, by the water districts involved. But state financing would be needed before water users could pay.

A cap on sales tax proceeds that are allocated to water projects should be lifted, the task force said, and money from sales tax should be used for the project. Later the water districts would repay the money to the state, with interest.

Alter said districts might need 40 years to repay their share, and added that a flexible payment schedule might be possible: less at first, then more when districts sign on more water users.

He said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was briefed on the report. "He was generally very receptive," Alter said.

Larry Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, outlined a strange legal issue that could impact the St. George project. A total of 80,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Powell would be used in the project, and the pipeline would be in both Arizona and Utah.

Utah has a right to water from Lake Powell under the 1922 interstate agreement that set up the Colorado River Compact. The river's available waters are divided between upper and lower basins, with most of Utah in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

But St. George is on the Virgin River, which is part of the Lower Colorado River Basin. Whether diverting Utah's Upper Basin share for a Lower Basin area is legal under the compact could be subject to debate.

"There's some question" about the legality of using Upper Basin water for a Lower Basin project, he said. But the other Upper Basin states have agreed not to oppose the use.

Alter argued that it's important to develop Utah's share of the water, saying it is coveted by Nevada and California. "They'll fight for it harder later than they would now," he said. Utah owns 370,000 acre-feet of unused Colorado River water rights.

"It's our water and we can use it," he said.

Jeffrey Steadman of the Utah Rivers Council argued against the projects, advocating instead better water conservation.

Following the vote, Merrett Frey, the group's executive director, said parts of the state like Salt Lake City, Utah County and Moab will not receive any of the water from the projects. Yet individual shoppers throughout the entire state will see their sales tax money used to finance the projects.

Even though the water districts will repay the state, Frey said, that won't return money to the shoppers in those areas.