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Lawmakers take aim at water law reforms

SHARE Lawmakers take aim at water law reforms

SALT LAKE CITY — A number of water-related measures will demand lawmakers' attention this session, including bills that require secondary water conservation plans and possible reform of Salt Lake City's control of its mountainous watershed.

As Utah's population continues to grow and state water agencies seek more accuracy on water data, one legislative proposal requires greater transparency from municipal or district water suppliers that deliver water outside their boundaries.

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, is sponsoring HB124 — a measure called Water Holdings and Transparency Amendments — that requires water suppliers to publicly post an array of information.

Coleman has said she wants greater accountability for water providers and easy public access to certain information, including a map of the service area, various information about the water rights involved, and the cost assessed to users, as well as giving the state engineer the ability to require certain information.

"As we know, Utah is the second-driest state in the nation," she said. "Yet we are ranked as one of the fastest growing. This growth requires us to be good stewards of our limited resources, and good stewardship starts with transparency, accountability and good data.

"Throughout the state, we have old cities, some with vast water holdings. We also have new cities and unincorporated areas with little or no water of their own."

Coleman said her proposal is based on the need for useful data.

A measure from Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, overhauls state law on extraterritorial jurisdiction — which allows cities of over 100,000 population to extend oversight on watershed issues outside their municipal boundaries.

HB135 takes direct aim at Salt Lake City and a more than century-old law that allows it to control water supplies from canyon ridgeline to canyon ridgeline.

A majority of Salt Lake City and east bench communities get their water from the Wasatch Canyons in a gravity-fed system now under scrutiny due to an early 1990s watershed ordinance with strict regulations on development, dogs, livestock and even motorized access.

Laura Briefer, director of the Salt Lake City Division of Public Utilities, said Noel's complex measure undercuts the city's authority to maintain high water quality standards and should be a concern to residents.

At a recent work session of the Salt Lake City Council, members were briefed on what they say is the worrisome nature of the bill, which is a proposal the city plans to fight.

"It is untenable to think we would be left with the obligation (to provide water) without the ability to make sure the water is clean," the city's lobbyist, Lynn Pace, told council members.

Noel argues the grant of that much authority is unnecessary in this modern area with the vast array of public health and water quality oversight exercised by county and state agencies, such as the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

Extraterritorial jurisdiction, widely discussed and criticized over the interim, generates concern among canyon property owners and fears that Salt Lake City could dictate land-use decisions in Wasatch or Duchesne counties.

Under questioning from a legislative water panel this fall, an attorney who represents Salt Lake City on water issues said it was unlikely the city would ever exercise that authority on land that far away but conceded that anything is possible through judicial interpretation.

Noel's proposal also eliminate's a municipality or special service district from being able to exercise jurisdiction over a waterway 300 feet on either side and for 15 miles from its point of jurisdiction. That provision of the bill has also stoked concern among some rural communities, but Noel argues there are sufficient protections in state water quality oversight.

Gov. Gary Herbert's proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal water year includes $1 million to study agricultural water use. That also falls in line with a HB93 by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, to require secondary water systems with 500 service connections or more to develop a conservation plan.

Josh Palmer, spokesman for the Utah Division of Water Resources, said as the state tries to develop more accurate water-use data, managers suspect secondary water represents a significant opportunity to decrease consumption.

"It's really a mechanism for those entities to plan and boost their efficiencies," he said. "We think that is a good thing."

Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, co-chairman of the State Water Advisory Team, wants to preserve the ability of conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited to negotiate and enter into cooperative leasing agreements of in-stream flow water rights.

HB73 delays by a year a Dec. 31, 2018, sunset date on leasing of in-stream flow water rights to improve trout habitat.

The bill fosters the ability of irrigation districts and other holders of water rights to put unused acre-feet of water to "beneficial use" by leasing that water to enhance flows for fisheries and health of the waterways.

Trout Unlimited worked on a long-term effort with the South Weber Irrigation District to ensure a suitable volume of water was delivered to the lower reaches of the Weber River.

The lease, the first in Utah, is for a period of 10 years.

Such leasing flexibility has helped improve the aquatic conditions in multiple drainages and watersheds around the country, including the Sun River Watershed in Montana.

"These leases are entirely voluntary and nonregulatory as well. The water right, the holders maintain full ownership. They want certainty with their water, and we absolutely wanted to maintain that certainty," said Andy Rasmussen, of Trout Unlimited and Utah field coordinator with the organization's Sportsmen Conservation Project.