ST. GEORGE — The money a southern Utah water agency is spending for an artificial stream at its headquarters would be better spent improving the Virgin River, critics charged Monday.

The Washington County Water Conservancy District says the recirculating stream will showcase endangered fish and raise public awareness of the river.

"We hope this will be an outstanding exhibit," Barbara Hjelle, the district's associate general manager and attorney, said Monday.

The cost of the stream and its desert garden was in dispute Monday. Hjelle said about $400,000 has been spent or budgeted so far on plumbing, design work and bulldozer grading.

Citizen's for Dixie's Future, a frequent critic of the water agency, put the final price at $1.2 million and called it a waste of money. Hjelle disputed that figure but was unable to offer another estimate.

However, a state official said Utah expects the beautification project will total $1.2 million.

Reed Harris, the Virgin River project director for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said the money will come from a Virgin River restoration effort.

The Virgin River Program has an annual $2 million budget provided in equal parts by Utah, the water district and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, he said.

Harris defended the project as worthy for public education.

"I certainly understand the criticism. It's just that they're saying we're not doing anything else. That isn't true," Harris said Monday. "We have a broad-based program. We're paying hatcheries to raise fish for us so we can put them in the Virgin River. We're trying to save water in canals and pipes so we can put it back in the stream. There's more water in the stream today than years ago."

The water district, funded by more than $11 million in annual property taxes and utility fees, shouldn't be spending any money for a decorative garden and recirculating stream, said Jim McMahon of Citizen's for Dixie's Future.

"We're questioning the priorities," McMahon told The Spectrum of St. George. "If you've got that kind of cash, let's put it in the river where it belongs."

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Christi Nuffer, administrative director of Citizens for Dixie's Future, said in a statement that the garden and its stream was part of a "pattern of wasteful spending."

"Why is it that during these tight times the water district has money for a fake river and fish viewing area when the real river is still seriously degraded?" she asked. "We thought times were tough and cash was short."

Harris said Citizens for Dixie's Future has a "bone to pick" with the water district over a bigger fight — a proposed $1.2 billion pipeline from Lake Powell to the St. George and Cedar City areas. That project awaits authorization by the Utah Legislature.