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Are major water reforms poised to take a dive?

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, KSL  |  Posted Feb 13th, 2018 @ 8:48am


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SALT LAKE CITY — At an emergency meeting of the state Executive Water Task Force, members said they will not throw their support behind controversial legislative reform measures and would instead prefer they receive study over the coming interim.

That Monday decision was followed by a legislative subcommittee's endorsement of moving to establishing a working group of "subject matter experts" to take up the issue of extraterritorial jurisdiction in Wasatch watersheds and transparency involving water supply sourcing, cost and service areas.

Supporters of HB124 and HB135 do not believe their efforts at water law reform have been entirely doused this session, however, because enough of their colleagues' attention was sufficiently captured over the need for action.

A trio of issues involving extraterritorial jurisdiction, water provider transparency and surplus water contracts has been percolating with intensity for more than a year in political backrooms and at the halls of the Legislature. The conflict pits private property owners against watershed ordinance protections some assert are too restrictive.

Extraterritorial jurisdiction means a city of 100,000 or more people can control land use decisions outside its municipal boundaries based on water sources or points of diversions, and those decisions can conflict with property owners who didn't elect those decision makers.

At the same time, cities can enter into surplus water contracts for water delivery outside their boundaries that are revocable with 30 days notice without reason.

State Engineer Kent Jones told lawmakers last fall the tenuous nature of surplus water supply contracts — in force in places with Salt Lake City and the ski resort town of Alta — are troublesome because they support permanent infrastructure with an impermanent water source.

At the water task force meeting, members discussed the possibility of trying to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot this election cycle that would allow cities to lease water instead of supplying it through surplus contracts. Currently, Utah law forbids the sale or lease of municipal water supplies in a more than century-old edict forged by the fear that leaders would be hoodwinked out of a precious natural resource.

Mike Styler, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said many players involved in the complex water delivery question recognize that concerns over surplus water contracts are viable and merit discussion.

In addition, the need to address extraterritorial jurisdiction to broach solutions between canyon property owners and the desire for watershed protections deserve thorough discussion, he said.

"They are so complex. Politically, they are hot potatoes. We need to spend more time."

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, had a water transparency bill that demanded water providers post information about sources of water, delivery points, water rates, a service map and a gamut of other information.

While on its face its seem ubiquitous, critics say the bill was aimed at Salt Lake City in a charge that the municipality has claims to more water rights than it discloses and that the water rights information should be made available, as well as its cost for delivery and retail water rates for customers outside service areas.

Some opponents of the bill alleged it would complicate national security to provide such detailed information.

Critics and supporters of these complicated reform measures don't believe they will subside during this session and instead continue to foment heated discussion about the future of water policy in Utah.

"Of course like all water issues, these are particularly emotional," said Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, a chair of the state Water Development Commission and the architect of a multitude of water bills.

"This is very emotional and there are passionate advocates on all sides," she said.

Dayton said study of "heavy" issues like extraterritorial jurisdiction are appropriate given its complexity and the importance in balancing rights of property owners in the context of growth.

"These are critical issues we are dealing with," she said.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue, KSL
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