An agreement between water users and public power users in Utah and three other Western states for financing $2.2 billion worth of water projects over the next 40 years is a dramatic break with the past.
The deal, if it gains approval from Congress, would use non-federal funds to finance water projects in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. It would allow the states to bypass the yearly fight with Congress over Central Utah Project appropriations, for example.The plan would guarantee a certain level of funding - money that could be counted on year after year. That would be a great relief from the uncertainty of the past.
Since it would allow water projects to be built without dipping into the federal treasury, the plan ought to remove most roadblocks to further water projects in the four states, except for environmental concerns.
Under the proposal, public power users would pay an extra six mills for power taken from federal hydroelectric generating stations on the Colorado River system - a 60 percent increase in their costs. The higher rates would be phased in gradually over 15 years, starting in 1991.
In return for the higher rates, public power users would get a contract giving them access to federal hydroelectric power for 40 years. Current contracts are only 15 years. In addition, public power's repayment obligation for unbuilt federal projects would be wiped out.
Water users in the states would pay 30 percent of the cost of projects with public power users paying for the rest. An exception would be made for the CUP Bonneville Unit where water users would pay 20 percent. This is because the CUP is under construction but nearly out of money.
Water users and public power users would pay a half-mill each for environmental mitigation work. That mill would raise a minimum of $6 million a year. Who would control the money has not been decided.
Any projects financed under the new plan would still have to meet federal construction and environmental standards. The government would retain oversight on how the money was used, but not whether it was available in any given year.
First priority under the plan would be the $300 million irrigation and drainage system of the CUP Bonneville Unit. The project would provide water to farmers in Juab County and the Sevier River basin.
All of this is a remarkable change from last year when funding for the CUP for fiscal 1990, including the irrigation project, nearly died in Congress over the question of repayment, spending ceilings and a reluctance to back any irrigation work. Only a $45 million stopgap measure kept the CUP alive and guaranteed completion of the Jordanelle Dam.
At the time, there was disagreement among members of the Utah congressional delegation, conflict between water users and public power groups, criticism from environmental groups and a failure to touch base with all the other states. Utah officials were bluntly told by congressional leaders to, "Get your act together before coming back next time."
All of that has been done, and while possibilities look good in Congress, there will be opposition, particularly from environmental groups that feel left out of the deal. Other Western states that are not part of the pact may also have questions.
But the arrangement would allow badly needed water projects to be built without federal financing. Given the state of the federal budget, the plan worked out by Utah and its neighbors will have to be the wave of the future.