It's a rare environmental bill that collects the support of southern Utah legislators and the Sierra Club. But that happened Tuesday, when the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee unanimously approved a bill to protect trout habitat.
By clearing a logjam it earlier faced in the same committee, HB117 seems to be flowing toward passage in the Legislature.
"This is probably the first time that I ever voted for a bill that's supported by the Sierra Club," said Rep. Michael E. Noel, R-Kanab, who added, jokingly, "and don't let my constituents in rural Utah know about that."
Currently, private water rights can be used only for beneficial uses that help humans, such as hydropower, culinary water and irrigation. But the narrowly written HB117 would allow holders of water rights to lease them for the purpose of protecting stream habitat. This would help the Bonneville, Colorado River and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, fishes that are native to Utah.
Last session, a similar bill lost narrowly. According to Tim Hawkes, a lawyer who is a member of the group Trout Unlimited and has been a main fighter for the bill, the earlier measure ran into trouble in the same committee.
That time, Noel had voiced concerns about the bill possibly limiting hydroelectric plant operations downstream. Another concern was that if a trout species protected by the bill were to be declared endangered or threatened, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would insist that the higher stream flow continue beyond the lease date.
Since then, backers amended the bill to ensure it could not harm downstream users like hydro plants, and obtained a "safe harbor" guarantee from the Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent such a restriction.
Rep. Stephen E. Sandstrom, R-Orem, the measure's sponsor, said that in a sense, by not using up water from a particular stream stretch, downstream users may have more available. He listed a string of the supporters, including the Sierra Club.
"I just want to comment on this bill and thank the sponsor and Trout Unlimited on this," Noel said. "I think it's a much better bill than we had last year. This is a major change in policy to recognize instream flow as a beneficial use."
As HB117 is now drafted, with its new restrictions, he said, "it will be a good bill. ... I would support this bill."
Speaking in support at the meeting in the Capitol Complex were representatives of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation and the Utah Anglers Coalition, and Jim Berkowitz, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Noel moved that the committee approve the bill as amended and the motion passed unanimously.After Noel made his comment about the environmentalist group, Sandstrom said, "I only mentioned the Sierra Club to get Rep. Riesling's (Rep. Phil Risen, D-Salt Lake) vote on this bill, and then he left the room. So I guess it didn't do any good to mention the Sierra Club."