SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson says the state needs to do everything it can to protect its share of water in the drought-challenged Colorado River, and the creation of a new entity would foster that protection.
"Sixty percent of the water used in Utah comes from the Colorado River," the Republican from Kaysville told members of the House Democratic Caucus on Tuesday.
He and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, are sponsors of the Colorado River Amendments, HB297, which would set up the Colorado River Authority of Utah with $9 million in one-time money and $600,000 of ongoing money.
When Wilson was asked if other states in the Colorado River basin have similar entities to safeguard their interests in the water, he said they do, and they are better funded.
"We have kind of been behind the times. In its simplest form this creates the Colorado River Authority, something we can rely on for 100 years or more," he said. "It is not about taking water away from other states. It is about protecting Utah's share."
Controversy over the bill, however, prompted a second briefing Wednesday to the Democratic caucus at the request of Gov. Spencer Cox, who sent the director of the Department of Natural Resources to provide additional information on the need for the authority.
"Utah has a claim to water it is not using," said Brian Steed.
In the context of population growth and climate change, the fight over water in the West is only going to get more intense, he warned.
"There is going to be a lot more competition for these limited resources. Utah has to be ready," he said. "There is a lot at stake."
But critics like Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, described the measure as a "terrible bill."
"It is not about water. It is about money," Frankel said.
Frankel told caucus members troubling provisions in the bill include keeping secret some records and the ability of the authority to meet behind closed doors.
Wilson countered that those provisions are consistent with other Utah entities that can exempt documents under certain circumstances or meet in private to discuss litigation or negotiations.
"Nevada is not going to open up meetings when they are talking about negotiations," he said.
According to the bill, the authority's ability to close meetings or exclude documents from the public relate to judicial or administrative proceedings in which an interstate claim to Colorado River water is at issue.
Frankel has characterized the would-be authority as a "shadowy" entity that is a prop for some of the state's largest water districts to pursue completion of the Lake Powell Pipeline, which is a state-authorized project to siphon a portion of Utah's share in the Colorado River for delivery to Washington County.
The pipeline has long been criticized by Frankel's group and others as unnecessary and a financial boondoggle.
Washington County water managers said booming population growth and the extended drought render it foolish to rely simply on the Virgin River as a source of water going into the future.
But drought, Frankel contends, is why banking on the pipeline is a bad idea because it would be built to deliver water that is already drying up.
"There's been a 20% decline over the last 20 years in the Colorado River," he said.
Wilson said a warming climate makes it more urgent than ever to create the river authority.
"There is no doubt the climate is warming," he said. "There is less water flowing through the river, which makes it more important for the state to protect Utah's interests in the Colorado River."
Steed later emphasized to caucus members that establishing the new water authority should in no way be connected to a push for the Lake Powell Pipeline.
"I would absolutely divorce those two issues," he said, adding that the state is "open" to the question on where the water is used.
He also countered conflict-of-interest allegations brought up by Frankel and others, rejecting the notion that water district representatives should not have a seat at the table.
Steed pointed to the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, which takes Colorado River for the delivery to more than a million residents in Utah County and southern Salt Lake County.
"They have huge vested interest in making sure Utah's water stays in Utah hands."