Utah looks to other states for more water under new bill

Senate President Stuart Adams unveils bill to create a “Utah Water Agent” who will seek out future water supplies beyond Utah’s borders.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Irrigation in Moab on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

A much-anticipated water bill brought by one of the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill became public Thursday.

Senate President Stuart Adams’s SB 211, titled “Generational Water Infrastructure Amendments,” seeks to secure a water supply for decades to come. It forms a new council comprised of leadership from the state’s biggest water districts that will figure out Utah’s water needs for the next 50 to 75 years. It also creates a new governor-appointed “Utah Water Agent” with a $1 million annual budget that will “coordinate with the council to ensure Utah’s generational water needs are met,” according to a news release.

But combing through the text of the bill reveals the water agent’s main job will be finding an out-of-state water supply.

“We need to be prudent in what water we use, mindful in how we preserve it and innovative in how we get more of it,” Adams wrote in the news release. “We will work tirelessly to ensure that we continue putting Utahns First and that our grandkids inherit a Utah where the rivers still run, the fields remain fertile and the taps never run dry.”

It’s not the first time water imports have come up during the 2024 session. An appropriations committee discussed a pipeline last month to help bolster the Great Salt Lake watershed.

The water district council wouldn’t be subject to open meeting laws or public records requirements under SB 211, while the water agent would be exempt from the public procurement process.

The bill also notes the water agent won’t meddle with existing water compacts with other states on the Bear and Colorado rivers.

“Once again, Senate President Stuart Adams is demonstrating strong leadership on water issues by introducing legislation that would create a mechanism to explore opportunities to augment Utah’s water supply,” wrote Colorado River Authority of Utah Executive Director Amy Haas in a statement.

Colorado River Authority, formed in 2021 under another bill sponsored by Adams, is also not subject to the open meetings and records laws that apply to most governmental bodies.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the environmental watchdog group Great Basin Water Network, balked at Adams’s latest bill, which has a high chance of becoming law given the senate president’s influence.

“I guess no state’s water is safe,” Roerink said, “when the Utah Legislature is in session.”

Last year lawmakers discussed a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean to help refill the Great Salt Lake. But scientists at Brigham Young University found the cost would be enormous — at least $300 million a year in pumping and maintenance costs.

“We’ve got to stop focusing on exportation,” Roerink said, “and start focusing on living within our means.”

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