SALT LAKE CITY — Critics of the proposed Lake Powell pipeline project walked away disappointed from a Tuesday meeting after members of the State Water Development Commission endorsed earmarking 15 percent of future growth in sales tax revenue for water needs.
Rep. Patrick Painter, R-Nephi, said his measure is not specific to the controversial pipeline, but a tool to generate money for badly needed projects or maintain aging water delivery systems. The revenue would be paid back over time by recipient agencies, with interest.
The split vote of the commission came after testimony from Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, who urged lawmakers and other public policy makers to refrain from making such a decision, especially in light of Utah's dismal record of conserving water and artificially low water rates.
"What is wrong with saving water?" Frankel questioned. "Why are we so far behind our Western neighbors?"
Cities such as Las Vegas and Austin, Texas, have more aggressive conservation goals, he said, and other cities have tiered systems in which water rates increase sharply if a certain level of usage is reached. St. George, the primary beneficiary of the pipeline's water, lacks such an financial incentive to deter over use, Frankel said.
Earlier in the day, Frankel's group was joined by multiple other organizations opposed to the pipeline in a press conference featuring an appearance by Chicken Little. Frankel said the character was picked to illustrate the scare tactics pipeline proponents are using to push through an irresponsible and wasteful fiscal agenda.
The pipeline is being promoted as the last diversion point for Utah to tap its unused allocation of Colorado River water before it flows into neighboring states. Painter and others say it is foolhardy to allow that water to go on past Utah when the state could develop it for its own needs, which will only continue to grow.
"If we don't have the foresight to continue to develop our resources, there will be a day when we turn on the tap and water doesn't come," said Rep. Don Ipson, R- St. George. "We are going to live to see the day where we regret it."
Some lawmakers, however, questioned the wisdom of setting aside sales tax revenue growth, especially when 30 percent of that growth already is committed to fund transportation needs.
Painter said it is possible to address that allocation, but he urged his colleagues to endorse his draft legislation to keep the conversation alive when the Legislature convenes in January.