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Utah water management plan goes to task force, but public is left in the dark (with audio)

First Published      Last Updated Sep 16 2016 12:33 am


Controversial projects » Advisory team says it seeks expert feedback before the preliminary draft is “tried in a court of public opinion.”

A draft plan for managing Utah's water may draw controversy not only for its recommendations — such as its call to develop the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Project — but also because it's unclear whether officials will release it to the public.

The preliminary document, which was distributed to members of the state's Water Strategy Advisory Team during a Tuesday meeting, compiles comments from multiple sources, including the 38-person committee that was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert.

The Salt Lake Tribune acquired the document after the meeting.

It urges state leaders to emphasize water conservation for homes, businesses and industry, and to maintain sufficient water supplies for natural systems, such as the Great Salt Lake. But it also calls for the construction of regional water projects, including the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Project, and recommends that the state develop a financing plan to pay for future water development.

Once finalized, the document would go to the governor's office for further consideration, said Warren Peterson, one of the advisory team's three co-chairmen.

Peterson told members of the public attending Tuesday's meeting that he did not know when or whether the report would be released to the public — that decision rests with the governor, he said.

He told the advisory team that the draft was not intended to be distributed to anyone outside the team. But Peterson instructed them to solicit input from other interested parties, whom he said could "read over their shoulder."

Herbert told the committee chairman after the meeting that he was "supportive of making the working document open to the public," his office said.

The intent of this initial draft, Peterson said, was to survey members of the advisory team and determine whether they agreed or disagreed with the assertions in the report. The team — which includes state regulatory officials and lawmakers, as well as representatives of municipal utilities, industrial, academic and environmental interests — was asked to submit reviews of the draft by Oct. 24.

"What we don't want," he said, "is to have a draft tried in a court of public opinion" before the entire advisory committee has reviewed it.

The goal of the advisory team, Peterson said, was to have the final document ready in time for the next legislative session.

The decision to not release the draft report — as well as the decision to not take public comment during Tuesday's meeting — prompted outcry from members of the public. Though officially barred from speaking, people disrupted the meeting with calls for more opportunity for public input.

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said he had tried for two years to speak to members of the advisory committee, which formed in 2013, and had been denied that opportunity.

Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said drafting the water strategy report had involved more public outreach than any other process of which he was aware.

"This will not be the end — debates over water will continue," he said. "I think this gives us an opportunity to hear from a range of folks in the community through a lot of outreach."

But Lynn de Freitas, a member of the advisory team and the executive director of the Friends of the Great Salt Lake environmental group, questioned the efficacy of collecting public feedback on a document not available for public review.

As the meeting drew to a close, the public and members of the advisory committee were invited to stay after to watch a video about watersheds. But the meeting's attendees continued to call for an opportunity for public input.

"We have time for a video but no time for questions?" one attendee asked over the din.

The co-chairmen announced that the meeting was over, the lights were dimmed and the video rolled as protests continued.

Listen to the post-meeting discussion here

Robert Grow, president of Envision Utah, was present at the meeting to facilitate communication among the advisory team members. As discontent grew, he stood and indicated that people with comments or questions should contact him or one of the team's co-chairmen to discuss their concerns.

Several dozen members of the public stayed, speaking with members of the advisory team with the lights off and the video playing in the background.

One of those individuals, Dennis Gwyther, a member of the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, exited the meeting frustrated. He had pulled his boat out of the Great Salt Lake State Marina, where the water is 5 feet at its deepest point, he said, and left it in the parking lot of his private business.

"It will sit there and rot until the state can pull its head out of its rear," he said.

Gwyther hadn't known about the advisory team, he said, or its effort to create a state water strategy until Tuesday's meeting. He said he was concerned that the state was being too secretive when dealing with water-related issues.

If the Great Salt Lake's water level continues to decline, he said, he is considering selling his house and moving out of the state. If dust starts blowing off exposed lakebed into Salt Lake City, he said, he worries that it could exacerbate his asthma.

"It's all about health at this point," he said. "I could care less about my boat right now."

epenrod@sltrib.com

Twitter: @EmaPen




 

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