SALT LAKE CITY — Zach Frankel said he loves his car, but he wouldn't love it if he were paying for it three times over — or even 10 times its value.
That analogy, the Utah Rivers Council's executive director said, is at the center of a new economic analysis by university professors who contend the repayment plan for the controversial Lake Powell pipeline is a bad deal for Utah taxpayers.
"We are rapidly marching down the road to get into a situation where water rates are not going to repay the costs of these projects," Frankel told members of the State Water Development Commission during its Tuesday meeting on Capitol Hill.
"We are marching right back into (Central Utah Project) territory to burden taxpayers with a debt they cannot repay."
Frankel's questions and accusations came as the commission met to get the blueprint to implementing SB251, passed during the 2016 Legislature and sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton.
The measure directs the commission to work with the state Division of Water Resources and the state Water Resources Board to craft extensive rules regarding the possible financing of large water infrastructure projects such as the Lake Powell pipeline and the Bear River development project in northern Utah.
Three water divisions within the state are working together to improve data collection on water use by 470 water providers in Utah, attempting to develop a more accurate picture of consumption.
Todd Adams, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said 90 percent of those water providers have supplied updated water-use information for 2015. The remaining 10 percent represent about 50 small providers who deliver water to less than 1 percent of the state's population.
Todd Adams recommended the state move forward with a third-party independent evaluation of the data, as required by the new law. In addition, the agency is compiling water-use summaries for each of the state's hydrologic basins.
The mapping of water use in the state was among many requirements in SB251, which also mandates new conservation goals in light of critics such as Frankel and a blistering legislative audit that said the state needs to do a better job of tracking water use.
Stuart Adams' bill also requires a detailed repayment plan for the Lake Powell pipeline, but Gail Blattenberger, a University of Utah economist, told commission members that even under modest cost scenarios, the plan likely leaves Utah taxpayers eating the interest over the pipeline's extended "pay-as-you-go" approach if final payment isn't made until 2060.
"The delay in the repayment would be financed by the state with no payments in interest. If that is the case, for Washington County it is a good deal, but for the state of Utah, it is not a good deal," Blattenberger said.
The debate also included a theoretical discussion over the merits of the massive Central Utah Project initiated in the 1950s to funnel water from eastern Utah Colorado River tributaries to the Wasatch Front — and how that may compare to the proposed Lake Powell pipeline.
Commission member Dave Ure said if there had not been the foresight to facilitate the transbasin diversion — which was controversial at the time — Utah would be a different landscape today.
"Had the (Central Utah Project) not been to the point it is today, Utah would be a dust bowl," he said.
Ure, a rancher, said drought conditions are forcing him to take on Central Utah Project water.
"All of the Kamas Valley has been running on CUP," he said. "I would not have a farm today if the CUP had not been in place the last 10 to 15 years. How do you put a value on that?"
Water providers in arid southern Utah say the Lake Powell pipeline is necessary to deliver future water supplies to rapidly growing communities. Without it — and even with conservation — the region will dry.
"Water is probably the only limiting factor to our economy and people living here," Stuart Adams said.
The pipeline seeks to tap Utah's share of unused Colorado River water that is currently delivered to Lake Powell and then released to downstream states like Nevada and California.
Frankel and other critics say the pipeline is unnecessary at best or a financial boondoggle at worst because it will be so expensive that ratepayers won't be able to afford it.
The pipeline is years away from a shovel touching dirt. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is in the initial review of the proposal and top-ranking officials toured the site Tuesday in a visit to conclude Wednesday.
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