Utah leaders will fight to preserve water project funding

Hatch: 'It would be idiocy to not finish this project'

Published: Monday, Oct. 11 2010 5:48 p.m. MDT

PROVO — More than just miles of pipeline, more than just a complex labyrinth that makes up the state's most ambitious water delivery system, the Central Utah Project represents a unique environmental achievement, depending on your geographic view.

For anglers, it may be the restorative work on the middle Provo River to return it to its natural, meandering course.

For some wildlife enthusiasts, it's the release of a mother otter and her two yearlings that will make their home in that same river as part of the state's otter management plan.

Elsewhere, it may be natural corridors of open space that have been acquired along the Jordan River in Salt Lake County, or the expanse of 4,000 acres of shore lands preserve along the Great Salt Lake in Davis County.

"Most people see us one way and are completely unaware of a project elsewhere in the state," said Mike Weland, executive director of the Utah Reclamation Mitigation & Conservation Commission.

"People see the big pipes that go in, and they're buried and they forget about it," Weland said. "They have no idea how big the plumbing system is for the Central Utah Project and the environmental component that comes with it."

Concern there is political consideration in the Obama administration to zap funding for CUP in 2012 has top policymakers in Utah launching a pre-emptive strike to protect against any diminishing of dollars.

"My gosh, it would be idiocy to not finish this project," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said.

Hatch detailed his concerns in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar after hearing the funding had been "zeroed" out by the Office of Management and Budget.

Eliminating the funding after a "half a billion dollars of expenditures is irrational," and would essentially "strand the federal government with a $450 million white elephant that never serves its purpose and cannot be repaid," Hatch's letter states.

Although actual budgetary decisions will not be made for months to come, Hatch said even a hint of eliminating funding is serious enough to raise alarm.

"This is a serious decision that should not be a political decision," Hatch said. "It is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of doing what is right."

The last time the Central Utah Project was in real jeopardy was during the Carter administration when it was among nearly three dozen Western water projects yanked for funding consideration.

Hatch said the resulting tempest fanned by political outrage had President Jimmy Carter quickly backtracking.

"I can't tell you the hell we raised, we were so upset," he said. "Carter walked into the room, I had my hand up and he told me to put it down, that the funding would be there."

In this latest threat, Hatch said he has subsequently talked with a top official in Salazar's office and much of his concern has diminished.

"I felt very good about it. After the conversation I had the impression it was some political hack in the administration that was just trying to give Utah a rough time."

Hatch said even beyond the "human needs" the project meets, the environmental remediation that goes along with its impact has proven invaluable to the preservation of wildlife habitat, bolstering state fishing populations and wetlands preservation.

"Even if you don't consider the needs of human beings, environmentally it would be a disaster to stop these projects at this point, Hatch said.

Chris Montague, director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, said the group has partnered with the commission on multiple projects to address the damage that comes with such ambitious water delivery projects.

"It would be a real tragedy for Utah and all Utahns, and most importantly, for wildlife and habitat if the funding stopped," he said. "I think people are pretty much unaware they have been such a major force in the last decade or more with enough resources to do some really important things on a big enough scale that it's made a huge difference."

The financial future of the $2 billion project is also being monitored closely by Gov. Gary Herbert, who met with his environmental adviser, Ted Wilson.

"He asked me to jump on it and keep him appraised," Wilson said. "If there is any indication the threat is real, there will be a big fight over it."

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

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