Legislators shot down the latest effort to get Utah taxpayers to subsidize the cost of a massive pipeline project to ship water from Lake Powell to St. George and the rest of Washington County, as well as Kane County.
Rep. Patrick Painter, R-Nephi, sought to earmark a portion of Utah’s sales tax dollars to be used to help pay for the $1 billion Lake Powell pipeline and other major water projects.
“Mark my words,” Painter said, “there will be a day that we wish we did” approve the funding.
Painter argued that Utah needs to act to develop 80,000 acre-feet of water, which currently flows out of the state by way of the Colorado River, before Democrats in Washington try to strip Utah of that water right.
“With the current administration and the current leadership in the U.S. Senate, I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling with the party in power,” Painter said. “Anything is up for grabs.”
He said the users would pay the state back for the loan for the project, just as has been done with water projects through the years, and everyone in Utah would benefit from the jobs and economic development the water would bring.
But Painter’s fellow lawmakers pushed back, arguing that water users should pay the cost of the project and not hundreds of thousands of other Utahns who pay sales tax but wouldn’t receive water from the pipeline.
“Water is life in a desert state and we simply must develop every ounce we are able to, but I don’t see how this bill affects that,” said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. “All this bill affects is the funding source, to say the state shall be a bank. … Why should Utah taxpayers be the bank?”
Water bosses from around the state argued that the state has made similar loans for past water projects and that, without state backing, the cost of water would be so high that economic development would turn to dust.
“Quite frankly, with the private market [loans] we could run into $200 per month for water rates,” said Dale Pierson, executive director of the Rural Water Association of Utah. “It will drive all development to the large, metropolitan areas where water is affordable and just kill development in rural Utah.”
Ron Thompson, of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said the scope of the Lake Powell project is different than in the 1970s, when the state helped finance the Quail Creek water project, but the principle is the same.
“The money that comes back to the state is millions of dollars,” Thompson said. “We can call it a subsidy if we want, but there’s a return to the economy.”
Gail Blattenberger, an economist at the University of Utah, argued that the repayment projections for the Lake Powell pipeline fall far short of repaying the loan and the forecast demand is exaggerated.
New population projections for Washington County anticipate there will be about 400,000 people in the county in 2050, down from earlier projections of 600,000 residents.
That means water user fees will have to be about 60 percent higher to pay off the project.
And the water isn’t even needed, Blattenberger said. With conservation measures and the slowing population growth, the county has enough water to meet needs until about 2047, without the Lake Powell pipeline.
Painter’s proposal won the support of just one other member of the committee and was soundly defeated. It was his last chance to get the bill through the committee, since he lost his bid for a Senate seat and will not be returning to the Legislature.
Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who opposed the bill, said he suspects there is still life in the pipeline.
“I don’t think this issue is going away,” he said. “I think we’ll hear it again.”