A legislative committee has withheld its endorsement of a bill that would establish a framework for developing the Bear River's water resources.

It's not that members of the Energy, Natural Resources and Agriculture Standing Committee oppose the project or its $10 million price tag.The stumbling block is water ownership - a prickly subject in the arid West. Committee members are at odds over whether entities receiving water from several proposed dams on the river can sell or exchange it.

The committee decided it wouldn't give the bill a favorable recommendation until after the disputes are settled by the Bear River Task Force, which meets again Monday.

The amended bill won't be ready until after the general session convenes Jan. 14. That means the bill will have to be introduced and wend its way through the normal process. The measure's sponsor is Sen. Fred Finlinson, R-Murray.

Finlinson, while frustrated with the committee's inaction, said it shouldn't hurt the measure's chances of passage.

Finlinson, an attorney whose specialty includes water law, has said the task force's plan is unique in its proposal to make the Division of Water Resources the owner, operator and seller of water from a series of dams projected along the river.

Elsewhere, those duties are usually handled by water conservancy districts with elected members.

"There's enough (legal ramifications) in here to keep water lawyers employed a long time," he said during a committee meeting in November.

The plan envisions three reservoirs along the lower Bear River - at Honeyville, Barrens and Avon.

It's unlikely any projects will be undertaken on the upper Bear, Finlinson has said, because Utah does not own enough water rights on that stretch, which meanders through Utah, Wyoming and Idaho.

If all three are built, they could supply 60,000 acre-feet to the Bear River Water Conservancy District, which serves much of Box Elder County; the same amount to municipalities and water districts in Cache County; and 50,000 acre-feet to both the Salt Lake County and Weber Basin water conservancy districts.

An acre-foot is the volume of water that covers an acre 1 foot deep and is the amount consumed by an average Utah family of four in a year.

Before construction begins on any of the contemplated dams, however, the legislation requires the state Division of Water Resources to have contracts in place in which the water districts would purchase 70 percent of the water available.

The bill also originally prohibited sales of Utah's share of Bear River water to out-of-state clients, but was amended at the behest of Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward, to permit sales approved by the state engineer.

Olsen felt Cache County shareholders should be permitted to deliver water to Franklin or Preston, Idaho if the water is not needed in Cache County.

Dee Hansen, director of the Department of Natural Resources director, winced at the idea of selling Utah's water to Idaho, but agreed the practice could be permitted if legal maneuvering assured that it was Idaho's share of Bear River water being sold to those southern Idaho communities.