A proposal that could ultimately end up funding large water infrastructure projects like the Lake Powell and Bear River pipelines advanced out of a House committee on Wednesday evening.
SB80, an update to current state code, would take 1/16th percent sales tax now set aside for transportation projects and move it into a fund for water projects. Davis County Republican Sen. Stuart Adams describes his bill as a way to set aside funding for the future, and not as something to fund specific water projects.
During Wednesday’s hearing, various members of the public spoke against the measure, saying it would set aside funding for controversial water pipelines opponents call expensive, unneeded, and environmentally-disastrous. Also among those opposing the measure were industry representatives worried that the construction of the Bear River River Pipeline in particular would put further pressure on an already-stressed Great Salt Lake. The Bear River is the largest tributary of the lake.
Tom Tripp, Director of Technical Services for US Magnesium, which is located on the western shores of the Great Salt Lake said that diverting the Bear River would have a negative impact on minerals extraction, because of the industries need for water.
That sentiment was echoed by Don Leonard, Chairman and CEO of Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative. Tripp said that low lake levels were already challenging the industry. He said it was a matter of “simple math.”
“Less water [means] less brine shrimp, less economic benefit to the state and to our companies,” Leonard said.
Those concerns are distinct from but intimately-tied to arguments environmentalists have been making: that further lowering the lake will have devastating consequences for millions of migratory birds, and also conceivably for air quality in Northern Utah due to an increase in dust storms from the dry lake bed.
During the hearing, Adams again defended the measure by stressing that the bill was intended as a way to save for the future, but that the money wouldn’t be spent until the legislature signs off on specific initiatives. When pressed, Adams acknowledged that the two pipelines were among three intended outlets for the funding.
In addition to environmental and industry concerns, some lawmakers on the committee questioned the impact reallocating the money would have on planned transportation projects. In response, Carlos Braceras of the Utah Department of Transportation testified that SB80 could delay projects such as the Mountain View Corridor freeway and construction of the West Davis Corridor freeway.
Despite the concerns expressed during the long-running hearing, SB80 passed the committee with a favorable recommendation on a 7-5 vote.
It now awaits its final vote on the house floor.
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