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Adams wants a ‘100-year vision’ of Utah’s water future. Critics doubt its transparency

Senate President J. Stuart Adams addressed the Senate on the first day of the 2024 Utah legislative session in Salt Lake City, Jan. 16, 2024.
Briana Scroggins
Special to KUER
Senate President J. Stuart Adams addressed the Senate on the first day of the 2024 Utah legislative session in Salt Lake City, Jan. 16, 2024.

The president of the Utah Senate rarely sponsors legislation, but this session Stuart Adams is.

Adams wants to establish a water council to identify ways of making sure the state has enough water for the future, which includes importing water from outside Utah’s boundaries. However, environmental advocacy groups, along with everyday Utahns, worry that the bill lacks transparency.

SB211, titled “Generational Water Infrastructure Amendments,” would create the “Water District Water Development Council” made up of the state's four largest water districts — the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

As Adams, a fifth-generation Utahn, put it during a Feb. 12 committee hearing, early residents “had a vision that exceeded their lifetime.”

“If it weren't for the decisions that those people had made, that 100-year vision, we probably wouldn't be able to sustain the challenges that we're having with water.”

He’s concerned Utah is focusing too much on “the moment” as it pertains to Utah’s limited water supply rather than a “100-year vision” that takes into account future generations. The bill, he said, “tries to restore that 100-year vision” by allowing the council to “open a dialogue” with other states about the exchange of water resources and the discovery of “new water.”

Speaking later with reporters, Adams added that the bill “doesn’t really focus on pipelines,” such as the contentious Lake Powell Pipeline project that would divert water from the Colorado River to Washington County. It doesn’t bar those discussions from taking place, either.

The council would also be allowed to investigate seawater importation, an idea floated to help funnel water into the ailing Great Salt Lake.

Opposition to the bill isn’t rooted in the discovery or trade of water – it’s how those conversations and negotiations would be handled. Under the bill, the council would be exempt from public records requests as set in Utah code. Zach Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, called it “anti-democratic.”

“These four agencies will meet in secret. The public will have no idea what is discussed, and there will be no meeting minutes or records that the public can access.”

Frankel added the exemption status could lead to corruption or unlawful activity that would go unchecked by the public. Adams said that excluding the council from public records requests and open-door meetings is necessary because water is a touchy subject.

“If you're negotiating with another state, those negotiations are sensitive. If you're going to talk to people about their water, most people carry a shotgun or a pony shovel with them. And when they're talking, they're already guarded,” Adams said.

During public comment, a handful of residents echoed similar sentiments as Frankel. Others said the focus should be on water conservation measures instead of expensive engineering projects to bolster the state’s water supply.

Republican Sen. Scott Sandall applauded Adams’s work and pushed back against those who criticized it.

“Conservation is very much a ‘we can do it now, we need to do it now’ idea,” he said. “Water importation is the long-term ‘carry on piece’ to try to bring additional people into our communities, to let our children and grandchildren have water that they can survive on here and quite honestly, thrive on.”

The bill passed out of committee with Democratic Sen. Nate Boluin as the only ‘no’ vote, citing concerns with transparency.

Copyright 2024 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Saige Miller