Lawmakers prioritizing creation of new, $9 million agency to oversee Utah’s share of Colorado River

(KCPW News) A bill that would create a new board to oversee Utah’s allotment of the Colorado River has cleared a committee just days after it was unveiled.

House Bill 297 aims to create a new, $9 million dollar state agency and a six-member board to control decision-making and negotiations over the state’s share of the river, as defined in the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

The new measure is a high-priority for Utah lawmakers, demonstrated by the fact that it is sponsored by House Speaker Brad Wilson and co-sponsored by Senate President Stuart Adams.

During a meeting of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Thursday, Speaker Wilson said that the new body was needed to level the playing field between Utah and other states who share the waters of the Colorado.

“The majority of our neighboring states that share the water from the Colorado River have large and significant resources and staff dedicated to the preservation of and the management of their share of the Colorado River,” Wilson said. “We don’t have that.”

Around six out of every ten Utahns rely on the Colorado River for their drinking water – and millions more in seven western states and northern Mexico are dependent on its water for various uses.

But the river has been stressed by a decades-long drought and is expected to be further impacted by climate change.

The bill authorizing the creation of the Utah Colorado River Authority includes provisions allowing the new agency to keep its meetings closed and a number of its records confidential.

Partly because of those secrecy provisions, Utah conservationists say they’re worried that the new agency is a means for taking action on the Lake Powell Pipeline, which would divert around 86,000 acre feet of Colorado River water to the St. George area.

“This bill is a water war. This bill ignites more frustration from other states by creating mythologies and ignorances and disinformation. And those conversations can be done behind closed doors,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council.

“This is about the Lake Powell Pipeline, and we didn’t hear that presented,” Frankel added.

In September of 2020, six Western states rebuked Utah’s plans to build the Lake Powell Pipeline saying that the plan would result in litigation. In a letter to federal water managers water officials in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming said that Utah’s pipeline plan was “not a recipe for creating the kind of meaningful and positive change needed to sustain the Colorado River in the coming decades.”

In a roadmap laying out his first 500 days in office, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has identified the pipeline as a priority for his administration.

Utah water managers have long bemoaned the fact that the state isn’t using more of its share of the Colorado River. On Thursday, Speaker Wilson suggested that further developing the state’s water allotment was part of the motivation behind the bill he was running.

“This is a finite resource. It is one where quite frankly we are outmatched and outgunned right now by those that are using the majority of the water in the river, which is lower basin states.”

HB297 passed the committee Thursday on an 11 to 2 party-line vote. It will next we heard on the House Floor.

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