Why did lawmakers cut funds for a project meant to help GSL while bankrolling a reservoir that’s not ready for ‘prime time?’

A project that isn’t shovel-ready is slated to receive every dime requested.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators with Making Waves for Great Salt Lake Artist Collaborative gather for a vigil for the Great Salt Lake at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Two expensive water projects on opposite ends of the state are getting disparate treatment from lawmakers, and show how things can suddenly get shuffled in the appropriations process behind closed doors.

One of the projects, the Ogden Canyon Water Line, would replace a century-old leaky pipeline that provides drinking water for Weber County. The project will save around 3 million gallons of water per day. As an added benefit, water managers have agreed to release 1,500 acre-feet each August into the Great Salt Lake’s Willard Spur Waterfowl Management Area, which is notorious for low water levels that breed avian botulism. The toxin wipes out tens of thousands of migrating birds each summer.

The other project, the Cove-East Fork Virgin River Watershed, would dam the East Fork of the Virgin River and create Cove Reservoir in Kane County. The proposal has been floated as a benefit to agriculture, but at least some of the water will also support booming municipal growth in Washington County.

“We’re very excited about it,” Zach Renstrom, general manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, told lawmakers this month.

Both projects seek $10 million in Utah taxpayer funds. Both requests were heard by the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee on Feb. 1. Ben Nadolski, the newly elected mayor of Ogden City, made his case for the pipeline replacement funds.

“This is a regional project,” Nadolski said at the meeting. “It doesn’t just deliver water for Ogden.”

Former Rep. Mike Noel, who is now the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, lobbied on behalf of the Cove Reservoir funding.

“This water will be stored at 5,000 feet elevation; it will reduce evaporation,” Noel said. “It has a tremendous value for agriculture and [municipal] water.”

Both projects‘ proponents claim to have federal support.

Cove Reservoir’s price tag currently hovers around $37 million. Between 60-65% of the funds to build it would come from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, Noel told lawmakers. But that money is not guaranteed.

Kane County Water Conservancy District has tried to get a watershed protection grant from NRCS for years. Under that program, projects primarily meant to benefit agriculture get up to 75% of their construction costs covered by federal dollars. Municipal projects get no more than 50% of their costs covered, and no engineering support.

The water district submitted an environmental assessment for the Cove Reservoir proposal to NRCS in October 2020. Soon after, environmental groups like Utah Rivers Council and Great Basin Water Network pointed out that the agricultural lands the district claimed the reservoir would support in Washington County were mostly getting turned into subdivisions and strip malls. And most of the agricultural lands the district claimed would benefit from the project in Kane County, the groups said, lie upstream of the proposed reservoir and have no way of using its water.

After reviewing public feedback, NRCS withdrew its draft plan for Cove Reservoir in 2021. It continues to work on a more rigorous environmental assessment. A spokesperson for the agency said the study will likely finish this summer.

Ogden City, meanwhile, has received the green light for a $42 million loan from the Environmental Protection Agency for its pipeline replacement. It also set aside funds given to the city as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, to pay for the $100 million project.

On Feb. 13, chairs of the natural resources subcommittee appeared before the Executive Appropriations Committee with their ranked list of projects. Cove Reservoir appeared slightly higher in priority over the Ogden Canyon Water Line. But subcommittee chair Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, called the Ogden proposal an “innovative solution” for the state’s ongoing issues with a shrinking Great Salt Lake.

“Our subcommittee prefers to give preference to those things that have statewide influence,” Sandall told the executive committee.

Other more localized projects, Sandall said, might be better off seeking funding through existing state programs, like low-interest loans awarded through the Utah Division of Water Resources, rather than grants from the state.

“Especially the [Cove] Dam project probably should go that way,” Sandall said, “through existing water loan programs.”

But when the Executive Appropriations Committee released its proposed list of funding items Friday — with one week left to go in the session — Cove Reservoir was still slated to receive a $10 million grant from the state, while the Ogden Canyon Water Line only received half the money it requested.

Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, said in an interview she was disappointed to see the change.

“Obviously, [the appropriations committee] needs to balance competing needs,” Lesser said. “But at this point in time, the Ogden Canyon Water Line is ready for prime time. The Cove Reservoir is really not ready for an immediate state investment.”

The appropriations process is different from other committee meetings at the Legislature that discuss bills and weigh their merits. In appropriations hearings, the public is not allowed to provide comments and items disappear and reappear on funding lists without explanation.

Some line items are vague as to their purpose. Utah lawmakers budgeted $3.4 million over four years for “strategic and targeted forest fire treatment and mitigation,” for example, which was actually earmarked for a specific private company’s controversial “roller-felling” tree removal method on some state land and private ranches.

“It is not only the press who finds this befuddling,” Lesser said. “Legislators also find this concerning. ... We do the work of vetting each of the requests and prioritizing them. Then when we see things that are not consistent with that, it is puzzling.”

Reached by phone, Nadolski struck a more optimistic tone.

“The session’s not over,” the mayor said. “I’ve had really good conversations with legislators.”

He added he doesn’t view the Ogden Canyon Water Line as in competition with other requests for state dollars.

“One thing is for sure, this project has to happen,” Nadolski said. “This project provides drinking water for a lot of people and it can’t be delayed much longer.”