SALT LAKE CITY — An environmental group claims some Utah lawmakers may be planning to restart the controversial Bear River pipeline project, which could significantly harm the Great Salt Lake.

"Grow the Flow" has been sounding an alarm in social media posts and outreach to its supporters about plans by a "small group of influential legislators" to purchase land for a reservoir in northern Utah. It says this could kickstart the Bear River Water Development project.

"This project would divert 220,000 acre feet of water away from the lake yearly," said Jake Dreyfous, Grow the Flow's government relations coordinator. "To put that in context? Water savings from these amazing efforts by the legislature over the last two years have conserved in the ballpark of 60,000 to 100,000 acre feet. So this is two-to-three times more water than they’ve saved."

The group won't say exactly who those legislators are. Grow the Flow said it has information passed on from a source on Utah's Capitol Hill and they are trying to protect that.

"It's a select group of legislators," Dreyfous told FOX 13 News. "Out of respect to our source, we’re trying to keep those names under the radar right now in the hopes that we can, you know, rally the large constituency of the legislature that is against this project and sort of — not force the hand — but push these legislators to make the right decision."

The Bear River Water Development project has existed on paper since 1991. It was a plan to divert water headed toward the Great Salt Lake toward other needs, like Utah's population. The project has never gotten off the ground because of significant pushback and a lack of need for it. Even Utah's Division of Water Resources has said given conservation and other measures, it would not be needed until at least 2050.

Still, the state has socked away money for it and has been purchasing land as it has become available, as statute dictates. The situation facing the Great Salt Lake, which hit a record low last year and presents an ecological crisis for northern Utah, has given environmental groups ammunition to call for the Bear River project to be repealed entirely. Lawmakers have been resistant to it over the years.

While there may be political will to support the Bear River Water Development project, the practical reality is there isn't enough water.

"We don’t have the water to give, to fund any kind of a reservoir at this point in time," said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, who runs water legislation for the Republican supermajority in the Utah State Senate.

Sen. Sandall told FOX 13 News he was unaware of any bill or funding request restarting the pipeline project.

"At least right now, as of today, as we stand here, I know of no legislation that is contemplating re-opening those sites," he said. "Maybe it's an idea that we need to re-look at. We need to assess what that plan should look like."

Sen. Sandall's district would include the pipeline project area. He acknowledged it faces a difficult future.

"I think we need to keep it on the books, but I think a lot of things need to change," he told FOX 13 News. "We need to find the water molecules before we probably proceed with too much as a state."

If a plan were to be resurrected, either in the form of a bill or a funding allocation, it would no doubt face significant pushback from environmental groups and the public concerned about protecting the Great Salt Lake. There would also likely be lawsuits.

House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told FOX 13 News on Thursday that while the Bear River pipeline is on paper "it needs to be re-thought, honestly."

"One thing that we do know is that we need an all-of-the-above approach and water storage and capacity has to be talked about. But it needs to be talked about in a much more responsible way than has been done in the past," Speaker Schultz said.

While he is in favor of more reservoirs, the House Speaker said he doesn't see the current proposal advancing. At his water summit at Utah Valley University on Thursday, Speaker Schultz pushed conservation across all sectors.

"Bear River pipeline is the past. No, it's not going to move forward as-is. Bear River pipeline in a different manner or different form? Let’s look and see what the options are and go from there," he told FOX 13 News.

Grow the Flow hosted a webinar to talk about its concerns and reiterated it and other groups want to see the Bear River project wiped off the books forever. It urged people to talk to their elected lawmakers to get them on the record with a stance on the Bear River Water Development project.

"Until this legislation is repealed or significantly amended, it puts the Great Salt Lake at imminent risk," Dreyfous said.

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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