Report: Utah relying on faulty data on water use, shortages

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — As state lawmakers consider paying billions for controversial new water projects in the years ahead, a report released Tuesday shows that state water officials don't know exactly how much water Utah residents are using or when the state will face a shortage.

The report from the legislative auditor's office didn't conclude whether or not the Lake Powell pipeline in southern Utah or Bear River water project in northern Utah are needed, but several lawmakers said after receiving the report that they're questioning the size or need of all future water projects.

The report found that Utah should be able to reduce its water use beyond current goals, which Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said made him question the scope of projects like Bear River or Lake Powell. He said he didn't know enough specifics about the projects to say whether he thought they were still needed.

"I don't think that we can evaluate whether the need exists until we have accurate information," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.

The Lake Powell pipeline would draw water from Lake Powell into southwestern Utah counties through a 139-mile pipeline. The project, which is expected to begin construction in 2020, would allow Utah to grab more of a share of the Colorado River, which several states rely on for water.

The Bear River project, at least a decade away from construction, would dam the Bear River north of the Great Salt Lake to supply northern parts of the state.

Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group, said Tuesday the Water Resources division relied on bad data to overstate the need for both projects, which are estimated to cost at least $2.5 billion.

Eric Millis, the director of the state Division of Water Resources, told lawmakers Tuesday that his agency's data isn't perfect but it has value. He said the agency agrees with much of the report's recommendations and would like to get more accurate data about the state's water use.

Millis said the report is looking at statewide numbers, but the division took a close look at the needs and water supply for the St. George area surrounding the Lake Powell project. He said they plan a similar study for the Bear River project.

The auditor's report only looked at use by communities and industry, and it didn't take farming into account, which makes up about 82 percent of Utah's water use.

According to the report, the Water Resources division has relied on flawed data from local and regional water districts that is being measured or recorded incorrectly or isn't measured at all. The division's estimate of per-person water use is based on an unreliable study from 2000, the report said.

The report found that water in Utah is generally cheaper than other states because in many local water districts, homeowners and businesses pay for a good chunk of their water through a flat property tax rather than pay based on their actual water use.

The report recommends lawmakers and state officials look at installing meters on all water systems, push to get accurate data from local districts and consider changing the pricing structure so homes and businesses pay more if they use more.

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