SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert has repeatedly stressed that water is the only limiting factor to the state's growth.
A good, healthy water supply is essential for crops to grow, industry to thrive, and homes to be built for the next generation.
With that in mind, Herbert convened a team of experts to produce a blueprint to guide the state over the next 50 years when it comes to all things water — its management, its conservation, its maintenance.
On Wednesday, the public had a chance to weigh in on a 197-page draft water strategy from the Governor's Water Strategy Advisory Team. It alternately drew praise and criticism
Critics took aim at the document for including consideration of big-ticket water development plans like the Lake Powell pipeline and Bear River development project.
The team was also criticized for charting a course for water strategy without knowing accurate data on the consumptive use of water, which was the subject of a 2015 legislative audit.
"I would caution you not to put the cart before the horse and let development drive your decisions," said Robert Comstock, a private citizen who showed up to comment.
Afterward, Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, a member of the advisory team, stressed the state is hiring a consultant to look at water use numbers, and there will be an independent look at the finances behind the projects.
"Some of the things we could not specifically address are happening and are going forward," Briscoe said. "I hope you don't walk out of here and think the whole process is done."
The team has already integrated some of the feedback received, said Tage Flint, the group's co-chairman and general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, noting that the report is "dramatically" different from an earlier version.
"The document now doesn't look anything like it did in September," Flint said.
The document has 11 segments built around key subject areas that include conservation, a changing climate, agricultural lands and food production, as well as the role that science and innovation may play in Utah's water future.
Craig Carney, who recently moved to Utah from Colorado, said developing the right strategy for Utah's water future is a chance for the state to stand out.
"The world is watching," Carney said. "Here is a good chance to set the example. This is a tremendous opportunity for Utah to get things right."
The draft report, facilitated by Envision Utah, grew out of an initial six-member task force convened in 2013 by Gov. Gary Herbert. The task force held eight town hall meetings throughout the state and also solicited written feedback, receiving an estimated 800 comments.
From there, Herbert established a 41-member team representing a variety of diverse interests to gather additional information and comment on key water topics to produce a blueprint to guide Utah into 2060.
Not everyone is in agreement with substantive recommendations in the report — which makes note of those minority opinions — but co-chairman Warren Peterson said the give-and-take process produced more commonality than one would think when it comes to the subject of water.
Areas where "debate" dominated the discussion included water development projects and how to "pay" for water, such as the current system of property taxes, Peterson said.
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council and ardent critic of the Lake Powell pipeline and Bear River development projects, complained about the report and the process, asserting it was "rigged."
"I have been waiting four years to speak to this document, and I am given four minutes," Frankel said, referencing the time limit given to speakers at the public hearing.
Steve Erickson, a longtime activist and member of the advisory team, said the report marks a sea change in the state's approach to water.
"The value in this process is that it is the beginning of the democratization of the water game in Utah," Erickson said. "The only way this document will be of any value is if it continues to be a live document that changes as time goes forward. If it is not that, we will have gone through an exercise that will wind up being a historical anecdote that ends up getting dust on a shelf."
Briscoe, too, urged readers to evaluate the report in its entirety.
"These are very important issues with a lot of thought going into this report. Everyone can find something in here. We pay an awful lot of attention to air quality, and I am glad that we do. I wish the public paid more attention to water," he said.