Water Pockets 

An earnest effort could be made this legislative session to fund the Lake Powell Pipeline

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Water Pockets

January is a month of high intrigue for Utahns who follow politics. It is the month when the Utah Legislature—a body of individuals from every corner of the Beehive State—prepares to convene for 45 whiplash days in Salt Lake City and pass a myriad of new laws.

Which laws pass and which fail often isn't fully understood—even by legislators voting on them—until long after tulips find their way into the spring sunlight.

For those with a long memory, 2016 will mark the 10-year birthday of the Lake Powell Pipeline, which the Legislature took one giant step toward creating in 2006 with the passage of the Lake Powell Pipeline Development Act.

In the preceding years, lawmakers chipped away at details like initiating environmental review, charting courses and singing praises of the easy Colorado River water that will be carried 140 miles uphill by the massive, $1 billion to $2 billion straw, to the sprawling desert city of St. George.

One hurdle to the pipeline that fell at the conclusion of the 2015 legislative session—and one that could have massive implications in 2016—was the creation of a fund where money to pay for the Lake Powell pipeline and its costly and no-less controversial sibling to the north, the Bear River Pipeline, could be squirreled away.

That effort, undertaken by Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, was blasted by opponents and some of his Republican colleagues because it appeared he was trying to open a bank account without any money to deposit. These fears did not persist long, for in the final days of the 2015 session, $5 million from the state's general fund found its way into the account.

Now, though, an earnest move to bankroll the pipelines is afoot. During the interim session, Adams introduced a bill that proposes to divert sales tax revenues from the Transportation Investment Fund to the Water Infrastructure Restricted Account.

"The only limit to our growth along the Wasatch Front is water, period," Adams says. Linking water projects to roads and transportation, Adams says, will foster a more holistic approach to the state's infrastructure needs.

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, says that success by Adams would make it "100 percent" more likely that the Lake Powell Pipeline will be built.

While Adams, who is a developer, and many of his colleagues in the Legislature have continued their steadfast cheerleading for the need for the pipelines, a growing body of research and criticism, from Gov. Gary Herbert to the state's legislative auditor, have raised questions about the need for the projects.

The most recent critique arrived in the form of Herbert's budget, which in seven swift pages, fails to allocate a single penny to the pipelines, and asks critical questions about the lack of plans to make taxpayers whole once they pay for the projects.

The governor's budget echoed a key point highlighted in a 2015 audit that was critical of how the state's Division of Water Resources was tallying future water needs. To address this concern, Herbert proposes spending $6 million to collect data and study water usage across the state.

The budget points out that Utah—the second-driest state in the nation according to the U.S. Geological Survey—uses more water per capita than any other. Utah also lags in attempts to measure how much water many of its users consume, a shortfall the governor proposes to address by spending $460,000 on improved metering efforts.

The budget also tags conservation as a priority, proposing to spend $600,000 on efforts to conserve. And the budget paints a clear picture about where Utah's water is used. It shows that 82 percent of the state's water goes to agriculture, while 18 percent makes its way to various municipal and industrial (M&I) uses.

Of this 18 percent, the budget shows that 3.5 percent is used for indoor residential use (the stuff that you drink out of a kitchen faucet), while 6.5 percent is used on lawns and other residential outdoor uses. Businesses and government use the remainder of the water in this part of the pie.

If the largest users in the state—agriculture—achieved a 5 percent efficiency on the water already being used, the budget points out that this sum would double the amount of water available for residential and business uses. And with a predicted population boom, and increasing trends to pave over farmland, this water will need to be used someplace.

Cold, hard statistics like these—trumpeted for years by Frankel and other Utahns who insist that the water to quench Utah's projected population and growing thirst already exists—has fallen on deaf ears.

So Frankel and pipeline critics have stepped into the fiscal responsibility arena to attack the pipelines.

"One of the more telling statements in the budget was the recommendation that the State of Utah not become the federal government and just pay for all of the water projects that are put forth," Frankel says. "I think that legislators will read that and go, 'Yeah, that's what I think and I think that's what most Utahns think.'"

The budget shows that of the billions of taxpayer dollars that could be spent on the pipelines, only 70 percent would be paid back to the state in the next 50 years. The remaining 30 percent is an open-ended question.

"Unlike the federal government, the State of Utah balances its budget," the governor's budget proposal notes. "This means that this type of major funding expansion would ultimately affect [sic] other state-funded programs (in particular education) or future tax levels."

Nowhere in his bill, which has not yet been numbered, Adams says, is there authority to begin taking on debt to pay for the pipelines. Adams says it's more like buying a house and having a large down payment.

"I think the governer has his ideas and I think he's probably well-meaning like everyone else, but my experience has been that these projects take a lot longer than anyone ever envisioned," Adams says. "The sooner you start saving and putting money away, the better you are."

But the governor's budget is little more than a loose guideline for what the Legislature might actually do.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, says he would be flummoxed if his colleagues allow Adams and the state's water managers to siphon loads of cash away from the Utah Department Transportation.

While water project enthusiasts say new pipelines are needed to usher in a new home-building and population boom, Dabakis says the same case is easily made for improved roads, highways and public transportation.

As to whether or not the Utah Department of Transportation will protest Adams' efforts, the lawmaker says he doubts they'll be happy, but also doesn't believe they'll complain.

Dabakis says "every dime" dedicated to transportation is needed and that diverting money to pipelines is a "terrible idea."

He also notes that the creation of the fund in 2015, and this year's proposal to begin filling that fund, are just two of many small efforts that have been undertaken over the years by the Legislature to avoid an "up or down" vote on the pipelines.

And, in spite of the evidence showing that Utah has the capability to conserve water—or at the very least, cease consuming it more wildly than its neighbors—and could reappropriate agriculture water to meet future needs, Dabakis senses that momentum is building to at last move forward on the Lake Powell Pipeline.

"In our state, the second-driest state, you wave around a banner of water, water, water, and it means almost any amount of intolerable waste is permitted because it's water," Dabakis says, referring to the waste of water as well as what he believes will ultimately prove to be a massive waste of taxpayer money. "This is a lollapalooza of waste."

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