SALT LAKE CITY — Decades of tension over Wasatch Canyon development, water access, transparency on water rates and Salt Lake City water regulations bubbled over Wednesday in a legislative committee endorsement of two reform bills.
"We know we are the second driest state in the nation and we know we have one of the fastest growing populations," said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, pushing for endorsement of her water transparency bill, HB124.
The measure, which passed on a 11-1 vote, calls for cities of the first class — those with 100,000 or more people — to make public certain municipal water information, including maps of service areas, water rates, the amount of water that may delivered outside its municipal boundary and more.
It particularly impacts cities like West Valley City, Provo and Salt Lake City — which critics over the years have accused of "hoarding" water or lacking accountability when it comes to water rates for recipients outside its boundaries.
Both Kent Jones, the state engineer, and Marie Owens, the director of the Utah Division of Drinking Water, said Coleman's proposal brings the state one step closer to having more accurate water data — a criticism that has been leveled at state water management agencies over recent years.
"The more data we have the better it is," Jones said.
As the state continues to prepare for its water future, Coleman said her bill also strikes at two current realities that have played out for 26 years as cities have delivered "surplus" water to recipients outside their boundaries.
First, she emphasized, those residents don't have a say in rate structures because they are not voting citizens and they have no sway when it comes to pressuring municipal leaders for repairs.
Owens echoed Coleman's complaint, and said water customers have unsuccessfully complained to state officials on repair issues, but a "water system" may look different than municipal boundaries.
"What is a boundary of a water system does not match political boundaries," she said, adding, "We don't know how much of problem this is, its extent."
Resident George Chapman called it a "good government" bill, even though a Utah League of Cities & Towns policy adviser, John Hiskey, urged action be deferred after further study or a constitutional amendment is crafted.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, said it didn't make sense to press for a delay on water transparency.
"I don't understand why giving this information is harmful," Noel said.
Noel's bill,HB135, does provide for a 2 ½ year delay in its implementation date for additional study and for state agencies and county health departments to refine requirements for adhering to its provisions.
The bill proposes to remove extraterritorial jurisdiction from cities of the first class, or their ability to control land use decisions outside municipal boundaries and over an entire watershed.
Noel said the bill does not remove existing language that allows cities to restrict what happens 300 feet on either side of a waterway or 15 miles from the point of a diversion for a drinking water source.
Utah Farm Bureau's Wade Garrett said what the measure does do is prohibit the potential of a city like Salt Lake City to govern what happens in neighboring Wasatch County or some other place it regards as part of its watershed that feeds into drinking water supplies.
Laura Briefer, director of the Salt Lake City Division of Public Utilities, blasted committee testimony on Wednesday, accusing presenters of using inaccurate data points and one-sided arguments.
Salt Lake City's extraterritorial jurisdiction has meant that over the years it has been able to safely guard municipal water supplies, she said, and it has never used that authority beyond the three primary Wasatch canyons.
"This puts the water resources at risk for a half-million people," she said.Comment on this story
Norm Henderson, a Big Cottonwood Canyon resident, said he butted heads with Salt Lake City's water managers as head of a small water district seeking a better, cleaner water supply for the Pine Tree Subdivision.
He said their requests were met with years of delay and a decision he said ultimately harmed the watershed that city and federal officials claimed they were trying to protect.
"I would urge you to remove extraterritorial jurisdiction. This unspecified jurisdiction has been tremendously abused and the circumstances under which it was granted no longer exist."
Both bills now move on for a full House debate.