Could Utah get more water from outside the state? Proposed bill opens that option

Feb 10, 2024, 2:20 PM

The Colorado River is visible flowing through the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Oct. 10, 2022. A Utah ...

The Colorado River is visible flowing through the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Oct. 10, 2022. A Utah bill introduced this week would set up a council to oversee water discussions with outside entities. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — While Utah’s water situation has drastically improved since a severe drought that lingered between 2020 and the start of 2023, state leaders and water experts agreed that better management of resources is needed to ensure there’s enough water available as the state grows.

But could Utah also get additional water from somewhere outside of the state?

A new bill crafted by Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, would set up a council that would oversee ways to answer that question; however, at least one conservation group says it’s concerned about transparency issues with the way the bill is set up.

SB211 was formally introduced in the Utah Senate Friday, a day after Adams filed it.

It would set up the Water District Water Development Council to manage water projects across Utah with “strategic foresight,” according to the Utah Senate Office. Composed of Utah’s four largest water districts, it would “strategize on future water demands by meticulously forecasting generational needs” and identify “viable” water sources, among other things, officials added.

Finding ways to bring in water from outside Utah is one of the key topics that the council would consider. The bill would also create a new liaison who would help the council by meeting with water entities outside of the state, Adams told reporters Thursday.

“We’re not going to solve our water issues within the geographic bounds of the state of Utah,” he said. “We’ve got to look to other states — maybe even internationally — and to other opportunities.”

This could be done by making policy deals or by building a specific piece of infrastructure like a pipeline. Adams points to a concept considered within the Lower Colorado River Basin states and Mexico as a possibility for the former.

The Nevada Independent reported last year about an idea being considered where Nevada could help California and Mexico build desalination plants to help both have access to water. In return, Nevada would take a greater share of the Colorado River from California and Mexico.

More than a quarter of Utah’s water supply comes from its share of the Colorado River, which is 23% of the water allocated to Upper Basin states.

The council may not rule out a pipeline either. A BYU study published last year outlined the high costs of building a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake, but Adams said the council could consider if it’s possible to look at similar concepts elsewhere. Water could come in from the Pacific Northwest, Canada or rivers east of the state for various needs.

“There are so many options and opportunities for the state of Utah that we have not taken advantage of. This will actually let us focus on it,” he said. “We’ve talked about it for years, but actually having some person, someone who can lead the charge to be able to work with other states, is a big deal.”

The bill would direct $3 million in one-time funds and $1 million in ongoing funds toward the council.

However, the leader of a water conservation group in the state said the vision is more of a pipe dream and potentially problematic.

Zach Frankel, director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council, said Friday that he’s concerned about provisions in the bill language that make it easier for the council to be exempt from public records requests and meeting notices.

In addition, he said the council could advance projects like the Bear River Development and Lake Powell Pipeline — two projects the group has pushed back against because they argue they are costly and unnecessary. The former would involve water that would otherwise end up in the Great Salt Lake.

“This bill represents the creeping stench of special interest power in Utah politics, and it is the next step to dry up the Great Salt Lake by diverting its waters upstream without the public’s knowledge,” he said in a statement. “SB211 tramples on the purpose of transparency.”

The bill has yet to go to a committee for discussion. All bills must be approved by the Utah House of Representatives and Senate before landing on Gov. Spencer Cox’s desk for a final signature. The Utah Legislature has until March 1 to pass any bills.

If approved, the bill will take effect on May 1.

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Could Utah get more water from outside the state? Proposed bill opens that option