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SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative audit that slammed the accounting methods used to document current water use in Utah and how much future water supply is necessary was revisited Wednesday by lawmakers, with some indicating an overhaul of state law is necessary.
The audit released earlier this month and performed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General said the state's water resource agency is using flawed data from 15 years ago to make predictions about future supplies and the need for big dollar projects — assumptions that aren't reliable.
"Before we invest billions in new water projects, we need to make sure the projections on need are accurate," said Jim Behunin, audit supervisor, addressing members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.
Behunin said auditors found that water use data supplied by districts throughout the state are often inaccurate, with managers who provide the information aware that the numbers of consumption are faulty. The state, too, realizes the information is suspect but has to use it to craft projections about water demand going into the future, the audit said.
With Utah's population expected to grow by 1 million people in 15 years, the state Division of Water Resources has been tasked by lawmakers to pursue the development of the Lake Powell Pipeline for growth in Washington County and to tap into Bear River water for delivery to the Wasatch Front.
Before we invest billions in new water projects, we need to make sure the projections on need are accurate.
–Jim Behunin, audit supervisor
The projects, with a price tag in excess of $3 billion, have drawn the ire of environmental groups and some community members who claim they are wasteful and unnecessary in light of Utahns' high per capita usage and cheap water rates.
Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said the state Division of Water Resources works closely with the state engineer's office to arrive at a more thorough picture of water use, but he acknowledged the accounting system needs improvement.
"Obviously, as a result of this audit, we know we can do better," Styler said.
The agency has reached out to the Utah League of Cities and Towns to push for more training for local water managers in documenting water use, and already "the wheels are turning" to crunch better numbers, he said.
Styler said the inaccuracy of the data should not dissuade the pursuit of the big-ticket projects.
"We have to develop these projects that give us our share of interstate water," he said. "We can't afford to take anything off the plate in water options."
But Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said the state must weigh the need for such projects given the questionable data, pointing out that 11 of the top 20 water users in Salt Lake City pay zero costs because they are government entities or exempt users.
Frankel added that developing water to "just develop water" should be a separate conversation from Utah's high usage and low rates.
In light of drought and climate change, he said, "we might end up building an empty pipeline."
Skyler asked lawmakers need to remember that employees of the water resources agency are simply engineers.
"They have no sinister political motives," he said.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, the committee chairman, said there is a "ton" of information contained in the audit that can be used to make the system better, adding that legislation would be needed to institute some of those reforms.
"I do believe there are ways to work around this and get it a lot closer to where we need to be," Jenkins said.
The committee plans to devote its entire agenda next month to water issues.