SALT LAKE CITY — Surplus water contracts, water supply transparency, controlling land use through water rights and a possibility of amending the Utah Constitution are being studied this summer at the direction of the Utah Legislature.
Lawmakers in the 2018 session decided the hefty topics merited further investigation and directed the formation of a task force with subcommittees to determine what, if any, changes should be made to state law.
At an interim meeting Wednesday, members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee heard from Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, about why the collection of water issues are so critical.
"In summary what brings us here, of course, is water is the most valuable resource in our arid state," she said. "We have some things that are really bubbling up."
Coleman ran HB124 last session — Water Holdings and Transparency Amendments — that sought to require Salt Lake City to disclose the amount of water rights it holds as well as service boundaries.
The city has steadily acquired water rights over the years in the canyons and elsewhere, leading some to accuse it of being a monopoly that merits regulation by the Public Service Commission.
Other critics worry big developments — like planned for Salt Lake's northwest quadrant — will compromise existing supply agreements Salt Lake City has inked with canyon communities and others.
Coleman said those surplus water contracts should be a concern for legislators, echoing a fear voiced by State Engineer Kent Jones that permanent structures should not be supplied by temporary water.
The contracts are revocable by the city with 30 days notice.
"While cities pinky swear they would never revoke the water, we have elections every two years and the constitution clearly provides that cities look after their own," she said.
Laura Briefer, director of the Salt Lake City Division of Public Utilities, told lawmakers that in the past, the city has never canceled a surplus water contract and has no intention of doing so.
Lawmakers also took aim last session at the city's ability to exercise "extraterritorial jurisdiction" to protect its water supply.
"A city of the First Class has a nearly unlimited ability to protect its water, which results in control of land as well," Coleman said.
Salt Lake City's watershed protection ordinance is designed to protect the water supply for 400,000 people in the valley.
The city points to other municipalities across the country that have watershed protections in place, including Denver, Phoenix, New York City and others.
Some groups like the Utah Farm Bureau worry that those protections could extend to places far from the ridgelines of the Wasatch Canyons if Salt Lake City is diverting water in another hydrologic basin. The city has maintained that would not happen.
Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said the subcommittees probing the issues are organizing and a meeting schedule will be set.
He added there is "broad buy-in" for the committees and interest in serving from people with a spectrum of viewpoints.
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