SALT LAKE CITY — A water bill that its sponsor says is "generational" is beginning to advance on Utah's Capitol Hill.

Senate Bill 211, being run by Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, had its first hearing before the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Monday.

"We're all focused on the moment, we’re focused on today," Sen. Adams told the committee. "But we’ve really lost, in my opinion, that hundred year vision."

The bill proposes to create a special water commission and appoint a water commissioner to engage in creative ways to bring more water into the state. It may not be a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Salt Lake (as lawmakers considered in the past) but other alternatives, like exchanges for water rights.

"Israel gets about 80% of their water from desalination," Sen. Adams said. "The idea was not to bring a pipeline from the Pacific Ocean, but help California build a desalination plant but we can take some of their water rights and use it in Utah."

But the bill faces criticism over provisions that exempt the water commission's activities from Utah's public records and public meetings laws.

"I really do worry about the transparency piece of it," said Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, told the Senate President during Monday's hearing.

Sen. Adams defended the tactic, noting that many water rights negotiations take place behind closed doors.

"If you’re going to talk to people about their water? Most people carry a shotgun," he said.

He insisted that what ultimately comes from negotiations will still go before the full Utah State Legislature in a public vetting.

"This agency can’t set any policy, it can’t appropriate any money. Any policy that gets made, anything that gets voted on to actually change or add to will be done in a public process," the Senate President told FOX 13 News following the hearing.

But one environmental group was critical of the approach.

"It gives them a lot of money to advance secretive legislation in the backrooms of the statehouse and work to navigate new strategies to get them through the opposition the public has to diverting the waters of the Great Salt Lake," said Zachary Frankel, the executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

Sen. Adams insisted his bill is not designed to harm the Great Salt Lake. He also pushed back on claims that the bill would somehow restart the controversial Bear River and Lake Powell pipeline projects that have so far not advanced. (Washington County's water conservancy district recently told FOX 13 News the project is at least 20 years away now.)

"It does not start or restart the Bear River or Lake Powell pipeline," the Senate President told FOX 13 News on Monday. "But it allows us to work with other states."

Public comment on his bill had many questioning the lack of transparency of the bill. The Great Basin Water Network said it had concerns about transparency, but signaled some support of the idea of negotiating with California or Nevada on desalination and a larger share of water that flows through Utah.

Farmers and canal companies testified in support of the legislation, which passed out of committee on a 6-1 vote.

The bill is expected to easily get through the legislature. In addition to the Senate President sponsoring the bill, House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, is co-sponsoring it.

This is one of several major water bills being debated in the Utah State Legislature that touch the Great Salt Lake, which shrunk to its lowest level in recorded history in 2022.

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.

Related Articles