SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker warned that a city's ability to provide water through temporary contracts to recipients outside its service area could lead to havoc unless voters change the Utah Constitution.
Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, chose his words deliberately when he presented HJR15 to members of the Natural Resources, Agricultural and Environment Committee on Friday.
"This is a very sensitive issue. If we realized the havoc that could be wreaked without an adjustment here," Stratton said, action might be taken.
Instead, it was clear committee members and some critics who testified on the resolution were not ready to act and instead voted to hold the resolution, which would have directed the issue be put to the ballot this fall.
"I hear consensus there is a problem," said Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville. "I hear good consensus that it needs to be addressed and then no consensus on what needs to be done about it."
The Utah Constitution prevents municipal water providers from selling their water. As a go-around, cities offer "surplus" water contracts to recipients outside their boundaries. Salt Lake City has contracts in place with Alta, Millcreek and ski resorts and canyon communities.
In the case of Salt Lake City, those contracts are terminable at will with 30 days notice.
John Mabey, an attorney specializing in water law who worked 14 years for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said the constitution is problematic when it comes to how cities handle surplus water.
"This has been a long simmering issue. Every 10 to 15 years, it comes to the surface and it is something that needs to be addressed."
Mabey represents multiple cities in his practice, and in particular said Provo — which provides water outside its service area — does not see it as a problem.
"They treat (customers) outside their boundaries as they do those inside their boundaries," he said. In case of shortages, everyone receives less water, he added.
"They don't intend to shut them off."
Stratton said amending the constitution would provide cities the ability to enter into more permanent — not perpetual — agreements that offer certainty for both the water provider and recipient.
"We have to adjust this issue in the constitution to protect both parties to our current structure."2 comments on this story
Last fall, State Engineer Kent Jones warned members of the State Water Development Commission about the precarious nature of surplus water contracts, stressing their tenuous status puts his office in a potential legal quandary.
"Temporary" water contracts, he said, should not be used to foster permanent development such as homes, businesses, industry or recreational amenities.
Critics have also complained that surplus water contracts leave recipients no say on water rate structures or infrastructure improvements.