Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - Low water levels expose a large beach area as boats sit on the sand at Rockport reservoir on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is plunging ahead on developing pilot projects for water banking, looking to shore up supplies in times of drought but preserve users' water rights that aren't being exercised.

The Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee on Wednesday endorsed a draft resolution by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, that encourages the continued study of water banking and the development of pilot projects.

Iwamoto has been part of a working group of about 50 members who for the last 18 months have been examining implementing the strategy in Utah as a way to allow greater flexibility of water use and water savings while still preserving water rights.

Utah is a use or lose it state, meaning if water is not put to beneficial use over a certain period of time, the right to that water can be forfeited through a process carried out by the state engineer.

Water banking, however, is a practice used widely in other states in recognition that an individual supply of water may not be needed by that particular user at a particular time, but it could benefit someone else or another cause.

"We hope with a resolution that it gives further direction and encouragement and helps identify strategies," said water attorney Steve Clyde, who also serves on the state Water Executive Task Force.

"Eighty percent of existing water rights are held in the agricultural community, but we, unlike other states, don't want to see the buy and dry approach prevail," in which farms are fallowed for the benefit of some other user, he said.

"We don't want to view this as a permanent stripping of water from the ag community."

Water banking allows an irrigation company, for example, to refrain from using an alloted share of water in favor of putting that water in a bank to use somewhere else.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources coordinates a water banking system in which water right holders can offer unused water rights to the "bank."

From there, the water can be "rented" to people who do not have adequate water supplies to meet their needs.

The Arizona Legislature established a water bank in 1996 as a savings account to preserve Colorado River water supplies in times of shortage.

A year later, more than a half-dozen irrigation companies in that state inked contracts to have a portion of their water put in the ground for future use.

"I think this will give us the flexibility to do all kinds of things," Clyde said.

"In times of excess capacity, banked water can be held," he said. "But anytime you do anything with water, it has a rebound effect somewhere."

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Because of the complexity of water banking, Clyde said it is likely legislation will be necessary to provide state funding, institute direct oversight of the program and reform the process of water rights change applications so it is expedited.

Multiple basins have been identified as likely areas for pilot projects, including the Price, Weber, Sevier and Bear river regions.

In other action Wednesday, the committee passed draft legislation addressing surplus water supply contracts and the ability of cities to sell or lease water.