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Obama budget proposes change in Utah water project

First Published Feb 13 2012 03:56 pm • Last Updated May 24 2012 11:35 pm

Washington • President Barack Obama on Monday proposed merging the multi-million-dollar, decades-old Central Utah Project (CUP) back under the Bureau of Reclamation to save money and erase duplicative efforts in the nation’s large-scale water projects.

The president’s 2013 budget pitch suggests that the CUP — which, when completed, will bring water from eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin to the Wasatch Front — fits better "organizationally" under the Bureau of Reclamation and could save $8 million a year with the consolidation.

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"This eliminates the need for an agency that has outlived its usefulness," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday.

Congress in 1992 moved the project away from the Bureau of Reclamation after complaints that it had slow-walked construction of the massive venture. Salazar said he was reaching out to Utah’s members of Congress but hoped that they would back the move to help cut back government spending where waste can be found.

"If I were in their shoes, I would support it as an effort that is intended to streamline government," Salazar said. "We don’t need to have a separate agency within the Bureau of Reclamation to just administer one project."

For now, the CUP is being built by the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, the Interior Department and the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission and controlled by Interior officials in Provo through the secretary’s own office.

Then-Sen. Jake Garn had argued on the Senate floor in 1992 that a battle in California over water rights had held up progress on the CUP and that making changes to the program was the only way to see it completed.

"This conflict has delayed the long-promised benefits of the CUP to the people of Utah for too long and the wait has been painful," Garn said, according to the Congressional Record.

Obama’s move to fold CUP into the Bureau of Reclamation may spark opposition from Utah’s federal delegation, however.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the proposed move is an "overreach" since the current authority allows for the management of the project by those closest to the resources, not those thousands of miles away in Washington.

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"Taking more authority away from local authorities to grow Washington is par for the course for this White House," Hatch said. "The Central Utah Project has been managed very well for the past two decades and this request to re-federalize it just doesn’t make sense."

The move to consolidate the CUP is one of several proposals floated in the president’s budget that would directly affect Utahns.

In another section, the president slashes the amount of funding available for construction projects at national parks, limiting such expenses to those tied to the safety of visitors.

Parks already face a mounting $10 billion backlog in maintenance, according to David Nimkin, the director of the southwest region of the National Parks Conservation Association.

"Our national parks [already] operate at the margin, and so substantive cuts really will affect the muscle and the fiber of the ability to both protect the parks, protect visitors and allow future generations to enjoy them as we have," Nimkin said Monday.

Salazar, in a conference call with reporters, noted that the budget proposal was "tough and painful" for him personally but that Interior "can and we will do more with less."

But, Salazar added, "This is a smart budget. It allows us to get our job done and to do our fair share of keeping the nation on a path to sustained economic growth."

Obama’s budget also calls for eliminating about $40 billion in tax breaks received by oil, gas and coal producers over the next decade, a move that Republicans assailed as an attack on an industry that is trying to grow and create jobs.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said that he’s open to talking about a comprehensive approach to the manufacturing tax credit but to simply jettison the one for the oil and gas industry isn’t right.

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