The Legislature's Water Issues Task Force laid the groundwork Thursday for a bill that would give sewage treatment plants the ability to purchase water rights to maintain stream flows.

Another bill to allow anglers to lease in-stream flow rights, promoted by the group Trout Unlimited, is already in the pipeline.

Until now, Utah law has recognized only two purposes for water rights covering flows left in streams and rivers: to propagate fish and for recreation. That would change under the bills under consideration.

Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, testified in support of recognizing authorized in-stream flows as a beneficial use of water. That would give them the same validity as a water right for consumptive use.

Baker cited an old saying that the "solution to pollution is dilution." That means if effluent from a water treatment plant mixes with enough water, it can become diluted enough to meet water standards.

Under the proposal, downstream from a mixing zone water is to be usable for other purposes.

If "water thugs," in Baker's phrase, illegally divert water upstream from a treatment plant, that may not leave enough in the stream for proper dilution. Although the state has been cracking down on illegal appropriations, the proposal would add a weapon to its arsenal.

A treatment plant with a senior in-stream flow water right could take a violator to court.

In addition, some treatment plants are reaching the limits of affordable technology in cleaning up their effluent. If they could make use of their own in-stream flow rights to dilute the effluent, presumably they would meet the standards more easily.

The amount of discharge a plant is allowed to make is driven by how much water is in the stream. Regulators base a plant's limits on calculations designed to protect water quality. If little water is flowing past the plant, the amount of discharge is more limited. That could place severe constraints on some plants where the population is growing rapidly.

If a plant owned the water rights and could ensure that more water is flowing in the stream, it could release more of its treated effluent without harming water quality.

Some plants are running up against the limits of affordable treatment technology. Treating effluent more vigorously may be too costly, unless the goal is to produce water of drinking- water quality — not the usual purpose of a sewage treatment plant.

A way to reduce pollution is through water reuse, he said. In this, water with nutrients may be pumped onto a field, where it grows a crop.

"Reuse ... is on the rise," Baker said. "And as we run out of water that's a very viable option."

Supporting the proposed changes, lawyer Gerald Kinghorn said, "This is a relatively narrow bill to resolve a relatively small number of problems." At the same time, it could save taxpayers a great deal of money, spent if extremely expensive water treatment options must be pursued.

Rep. Ben C. Ferry, R-Corinne, asked if in-stream flows shouldn't be the last resort as an answer to pollution problems. But Kinghorn said he doesn't think so. Some plants are nearing the limits of technology, he said, and under this plan, "nobody gets hurt."

The state engineer would specify the reach, or section of stream, involved, as well as the quantity and quality of the flow.

Still, Kinghorn acknowl- edged, "We've had many comments that the existing system works well."

Some senior water rights might not be used often, said Ferry. But if they are sold to a treatment plant, which needs to maintain its flows year-round, that could put downstream junior water right holders in jeopardy of not getting their water.

Kinghorn replied that the treatment plant's in-stream flow rights would only be used at certain times of the year, during times of low flow. "Statistically, those (low water periods) are relatively rare."

Fred Finlinson, the former state senator, now with the Utah Water Coalition, spoke in favor of the proposals. He said the most critical area that may be involved is at East Canyon.

Todd Bingham of the Utah Farm Bureau Association said some members of his group are concerned about sale of water rights artificially boosting the price of water. He added, "We just want to make sure we don't upset the apple cart."