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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Leaves change colors over the creek in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — A residential real estate appraiser warned lawmakers Tuesday the state is sitting on a "catastrophic" powder keg because "temporary" surplus water is being used to support permanent development.

"If people had any idea," David Fife warned, "if they were aware of the nebulous nature of access to water, (the lending institutions) won't fund debt in Salt Lake County. This is an economic weapon of mass destruction if this were fully understood. People should be rightfully concerned of the precarious nature of access to water in affected areas."

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, ran HJR15 seeking to get a constitutional amendment on the general election ballot to give cities more flexibility on how they dispense of surplus water. The Utah Constitution prohibits selling of water, so some cities like Salt Lake City and Provo enter into surplus contracts to provide water to residents outside their municipal boundaries.

In the case of Salt Lake City, those contracts can be terminated with 30 days notice. Provo leaves the continuation of those contracts up to water manager's discretion.

Salt Lake City has been providing water along the east bench since the 1920s. Surplus water contracts are used to provide water to the town of Alta and for existing development in the Wasatch canyons.

Salt Lake City Public Utilities Director Laura Briefer said the city has never acted on canceling a surplus water contract, but some canyon residents complained they were threatened with the action by a former director when they objected to a signficant increase in their water rates.

Over the years, Salt Lake City's control of water in the canyons has spurred a bevy of litigation, some of which has wound its way to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The courts have sided with the city's watershed protectionist stance, but canyon property owners complain the availability of water is being used as a weapon.

Stratton's resolution, which was deferred to interim for study, would not have solved the development fights but would ensure more certainty for parties who enter into surplus contracts, he said.

"I don't think it is good to do nothing," he said. "As a state we are growing. We've been able to kick the can down the road. … If we don't correct a course here, in time it could be very problematic."

Mark Stratford, of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, urged members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee to refrain from passing the resolution.

"There is no reason to expect there is an immediate threat," he said. "There is no immediate threat of loss of water."

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But Mike Styler, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said the surplus water issue — which has cropped up repeatedly over the last 30 years — should be fixed.

"Something needs to be done," Styler said.

Lawmakers like Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, worried endorsement of the resolution might be too hasty and result in unintended consequences.

Stratton said he would not relent on changing the constitution and its surplus water provision and would be back with another effort next session.

"It would be nice to get it going down the road."