SALT LAKE CITY — Water is becoming a bigger issues as Utah continues to grow. Now, the Utah State Legislature is wading into the issue with a new bill that asserts the state's claims on the Colorado River.
"Water can be a pretty contentious issue and we just want to make sure we’re really well prepared," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in an interview with FOX 13.
House Bill 297 creates an authority to represent Utah's interests when it comes to the river, which supplies water to Utah and six surrounding states.
"It’s designed protect our share of the water we negotiated 100 years ago," said Speaker Wilson.
Utah is only using 54% of the Colorado River water it is able to, he said. That is expected to change as the state continues to grow.
"As we grow, we would probably like to use more of that. But the other thing that’s happening, which is here in the state we’re doing much better on conservation. So the amount we’re using isn’t growing as the same rate of our population. That’s a good thing. But we do need to protect the water rights we have," he told FOX 13.
The bill faces pushback from environmental groups. During a hearing Thursday, they criticized the speed at which the bill is moving through the legislature. Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity expressed concern about provisions of the bill that allow for public meetings to be closed that she said "clearly designed here is to shut the public out of the process."
Zach Frankel with the Utah Rivers Council blasted the bill and said it was more about advancing the Lake Powell Pipeline project.
"This bill is not about water. This bill is about money. This bill is about special-interest politicking. It’s about climate change denial. It’s about limiting public government," he told the House Natural Resources committee.
Some rural lawmakers on the committee also criticized the limited size of the new authority, arguing they were being kept out.
"Just because they’re not developed doesn’t mean they’re not developable and maybe even need a more prominent spot," said Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding.
But the bill had support from the committee and the executive director of Utah's Department of Natural Resources.
"Water is our future and the competition over that is not going to get any less going forward," said DNR director Brian Steed. "Protecting Utah’s rights is paramount to that future."
Speaker Wilson acknowledged it could help Utah in negotiating the Colorado River Compact again with neighboring states.
"They’ve been beating us to the punch," Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said of other states. "It’s about time we punch back."
The bill passed out of committee on a 12-2 vote, with Democrats voting against it. It now goes to the House floor for a vote (and with the Speaker personally running the bill, it is expected to pass).