John Hollenhorst ReportingMembers of a state water task force said today it's urgent to start acquiring land and rights-of-way for two huge water projects, and they're nervously proposing to pay for it with a statewide increase in sales taxes.
The two projects would have a minimum price tag of well over a billion dollars. Officials say the dams and pipelines aren't needed for at least 15 years. But the time to get started is now, or costs will go much higher.
Lake Powell and the Bear River, they're Utah's last two major undeveloped water sources.
Rep. Mike Noel, (R) Kanab: “Oh they are absolutely critical to the state.”
In the North planners envision a Bear River dam with reservoirs and pipelines delivering drinking water to growing cities on the Wasatch Front. In the south, a pipeline would snake its way from Lake Powell to the booming St. George area.
Ed Alter, State Treasurer: "Well if the population is going to double in the next 30 or 40 years, we're all going to have to drink something. And this is the last new water there is to develop. After that there will be no new water."
A state task force says the necessary land and rights-of-way must be acquired soon before they're gobbled up by development.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard: “The quicker we do it, the cheaper it’s going to be. And it lets everyone know this is what’s going to happen.”
The task force recently endorsed a statewide hike in sales taxes to pay for it.
Rep. Mike Noel: “It’s the only way. We don’t have the ability to fund these big projects through federal funding any longer.”
But a veteran state senator says the sales tax idea needs a reality check.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard: “I think it’s tough to sell. First of all, there’s no mood in Utah right now to raise any taxes. I think our people have said, ‘Make do with what you have!’”
Environmentalists trying to save the rivers also oppose the sales tax. They say water users should pay more in water rates instead of paying higher taxes.
Jeffrey Steadman, Utah Rivers Council: "You use taxpayer money and it keeps the price of water artificially low. And when the price of water is artificially low, people don't see the value of it, don't use it as wisely as they could."
He says good conservation measures would save enough water to make the projects unnecessary. But task force members argue that conservation isn't enough. If nothing more is done, they say, the state will be in a full-blown crisis a few years from now.