Utah had to scramble last year when the effects of one of the toughest droughts in modern history began to take hold — reservoirs shrinking and jeopardizing water supplies, a trio of towns actually going dry, and lawns and crops turning an ugly yellow.

Ultimately, the state limped through and fingers are crossed for a bountiful snowpack and robust runoff this year. And the next and after that.

But if not?

Utah lawmakers are pushing for a study on the “preference” of water rights, or who should get how much if the state declares an emergency of a temporary water supply shortage. If those water right holders are cut off for other “preferential users” the study would also look at reasonable compensation for their loss.

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Rep. Carl Albrecht, R- Richfield, worked with a pair of specialized task forces made up of lawmakers, water providers and other experts over the last several months to arrive at HB168, which would direct the study.

“This bill has been to the task force twice, been to the water commission and we established a working group that could not come up with a plan,” he said. “It is a tough bill.”

The legislation came up before the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee Thursday and received a 5-0 favorable vote, which will send it to the full Senate.

Albrecht is running the legislation at the request of Brian Steed, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and state engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen in response to what he says is a lack of direction for them on what should happen during an extreme emergency of water supply shortages.

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If there are substantive changes about which water right holders get preference during such a shortage, it would upend Utah’s system of water appropriation, which follows the first in time, first in right doctrine. Water right holders — those with senior rights that can date back as far as before Utah was even a state — get first priority. That appropriation is unequivocal as it now stands.

“This is a historic shift in how we deal with water rights. The first water right always has the claim on water,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton. “If we take that first claim away, how would we compensate?”

Such a potential shift is why no agreement was reached on essentially how a small bucket of water should be parsed out to thirsty customers during an extreme emergency, Albrecht noted.

“We need water for drinking, we need it for a sewer systems, we need it for power and we need it to fight fires,” Albrecht said.

The Utah Valley Water Treatment Plant in Orem is pictured on Oct. 1, 2015. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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Jon Cox, with Rocky Mountain Power, said current Utah law is insufficient.

“Our water could be taken from our power generation facilities and used elsewhere under current code,” he said.

Sen. Dave Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said he would vote for the bill, but only for its study aspect.

“We have gone through droughts before and we have worked it out,” referencing a barter system in which water use negotiations are worked out in a more informal fashion.

Hinkins said he believes the “preferential priorities” designation would facilitate tension.

“You’ve got a gun to your head to negotiate with this bill,” he said.

In House debate on the measure, Rep. Joel Ferry, R-Brigham City, said there’s no question of complex ramifications if the state ultimately moves to preferential priorities when it comes to water rights.

Water runs out of Tibble Fork Reservoir in American Fork Canyon on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“This was a pretty tough piece of legislation. When you are looking at (changing appropriation) of water in a dry time, it is tough,” he said. “But this would be rare and only under dire, dire circumstances.”

The latest information provided by the state on drought conditions in Utah is not favorable.

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“The rollercoaster ride continues,” Steed said in a statement released Thursday. “Dry weather isn’t what we want. We need consistent snowstorms. These next two months will really determine what kind of spring runoff we will have.”

The state has 54 days until the snowpack typically peaks.

More than 90% of the state remains in extreme drought and a majority of the state’s major reservoirs are hovering at just over half full.

Study results, if the bill passes, need to be delivered to lawmakers by November. Their views may ultimately be shaped by what plays out weather-wise before then.

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