Legislative leadership stressed Wednesday that Utah needs to plan now for water needs 25, 50, or even 100 years from now so future generations can rely on a dependable supply of a finite resource in one of the driest states in the nation.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, addressed the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Wednesday, urging the passage of SB211, or the Generational Water Infrastructure Amendments.

“I’m the beneficiary of five generations of work,” Adams said, explaining he is a fifth generation Layton resident. “And I realized last year that we would have run out of water if it had not been for the forethought of those individuals that went before me that did not have a view just for their kids. They didn’t have a view just for their kids and their grandkids — that they looked five generations down the road to me and had 100-year vision.”

Schultz, who added that he, too, is a fifth generation Utah resident, said it is important for Utah to have avenues in place on water availability due to the state’s mounting pressures.

“While Utah’s made significant strides in water management, we face ongoing challenges such as population growth, and competing demands for water — and like the Great Salt Lake — addressing these challenges requires collaboration, innovation and an eye toward the future,” Schultz said.

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The bill establishes a Water Development Council which acts in an advisory capacity to the state Legislature and the governor, creates a “water agent” with a six-year appointment to negotiate with other states and entities on behalf of Utah, and includes participation from the Great Salt Lake Commissioner and the director of the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Adams said this is what the council established under the bill cannot do:

  • Acquire property.
  • Own water rights.
  • Appropriate money.
  • Set policy.

Too much power?

The Utah Rivers Council has blasted the measure, however.

“This is an undemocratic bill that allows appointed government officials to meet secretly and concoct all kinds of proposals about our water future without any public insight,” Matt Berry, a policy analyst with the council, told committee members.

“The eyes of the world are watching Utah and how we handle the crisis at the Great Salt Lake,” he said. “Open and public discussion of Utah’s water future is vitally important as we face a dwindling Colorado River and likely curtailment from the federal government. The public needs to have their voices heard as their livelihoods and futures are at stake.”

The rivers council asserts the bill’s provisions gives representatives from the state’s largest water districts, Weber Basin, Jordan Valley, Central Utah and Washington County, unfettered power to negotiate sensitive water issues and development in secret.

“We the people deserve to know what projects are being recommended by this proposed Water Development Council and what is being discussed at meetings rather than only finding out about it during the appropriations process.”

A representative from the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club echoed that sentiment.

“At a time when water security and a collapsing Great Salt Lake are some of the biggest challenges facing our state, Utahns deserve more transparency about efforts to develop and divert water, not less,” said Maria Archibald.

But Adams and others stressed it is critical to be able to have discussions and negotiations that aren’t trampled before they have a chance for robust debate.

“When you talk about water, most people bring a shotgun and a pony shovel with them. And it’s very difficult to have those conversations, but they’re going to have to have those conversations,” Adams said. “They’re very, very significant. In the bill it actually asks for some privacy to be had so they can talk openly and freely and innovate.”

The bill does require oversight and “buy-in” from the Utah Legislature and the governor before any negotiations come to fruition.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, compared the early, closed-door negotiations to protecting a young plant.

“I see all sorts of oversight everywhere in this bill. I also understand the principle of protecting the seedling when something is just coming and growing. There needs to be protection around that so it doesn’t get trampled and allow it to get to the point that can then be considered and bedded and poked and prodded,” he said. “I think the bill strikes a balance.”

Adams said it wasn’t that many years ago that Utah was “behind the eight ball” when it came to the Colorado River until the state formed the Colorado River Authority to negotiate with other states on behalf of Utah and some of its partners in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

“This actually looks out to the future what our water needs are, and then tries to develop a process that that actually looks to other states and more of a regional outlook to solve our water problems.”

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The bill includes a focus on multistate solutions, Adams said, but more importantly underscores the need for Utah leaders to not just be thinking about what needs to happen but invoking possible solutions.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, agreed.

“The reality that we face as a state is that if we don’t do something like this, we will be continuing to fight over an ever diminishing pie to the detriment of everyone. Literally everyone — residents, industry, the environment as you go down the list — there simply is not enough water for all of the needs,” Snider said. “I commend the bill’s sponsor. We have needed to have this conversation in a very robust way for a long time. It really is a once in a generation opportunity. It shifts the dynamic to a world where we have plenty rather than from a world where we’re continuing to fight over scarcity.”