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The sky may be falling, but rain is not; at least not enough to serve the future needs of residents in Washington County a state board decided Tuesday.
So, despite protest from several groups, the State Water Development Commission on Tuesday moved forward legislation to fund a $1 billion-plus pipeline to take Lake Powell water to Washington County.
At full development, the Lake Powell pipeline is envisioned to deliver up to 70,000 acre-feet of water a year or enough to supply about 70,000 homes a year.
The Sales and Use Tax Allocations for Water Resources Funding bill, which would earmark 15 percent of future growth in state sales-tax revenues for water development, now advances for action Wednesday to the Legislature's Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee. If approved there, the bill could get fast tracked in the 2013 Legislature.
Groups who say the legislation would rob sales tax revenue growth from other needs such as education, conservation and low-income programs, invited Chicken Little to a news conference Tuesday to speak against the 129-mile pipeline.
"When I heard America's biggest water waster wanted more at the cost of $2 billion taken from health, public education and enforcement I decided I needed to come down and check it out," said Chicken Little, or at least someone in a costume that looked like Chicken Little.
"What's remarkable about this bill being reintroduced is that just two months ago the governor's office released new population estimates for Washington County and they indicate growth is occurring there much slower than previously thought," Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said. "There is no need for any water for at least 30 years. For some legislators to now propose a sales tax earmark that is incredibly unpopular in the wake of this new data demonstrating that it is completely unnecessary is remarkable."
Frankel made a presentation against the bill to the commission, but the motion to approve it came from Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab, and it passed with opposition from Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. The Democrats both acknowledged the need for water projects in Utah, but were concerned about allocating money not yet received.
Noel called Utah's allocation of Colorado River water in a 1922 compact a blessing, but pointed out that it might be reduced at some point in the future.
"We may see in the future that number go down. We may, in fact, see water reduction in the state of Utah because of climate change," Noel said in defense of his motion to move the bill forward. "If it goes down, what better place to draw from than the very last place in the river before it goes into another state?"
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Patrick Painter, R-Nephi, a lawmaker whose term expires before the 2013 Legislature convenes, but who is currently the House chairman of the legislative committee expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.
Painter said he suspects "the forefathers of this state" were criticized when water developments such as the Central Utah Water Project and Strawberry and Deer Creek reservoirs were proposed. "If we don't exercise our right to get our 80,000 acre feet out of the Colorado River we are derelict in our duties. That is our birthright, our kids' birthright."
The opposing groups Utah Rivers Council, Crossroads Urban Center, Citizens for Dixie's Future and Who Pays For Waste say they wonder how the high price for the Lake Powell Pipeline could ever be repaid.
"It is surprising that in an election year conservative lawmakers are bold enough to ask for more taxes to fund a project that is not necessary," said Christi Wedig, executive director of Citizens for Dixie's Future. "This is exactly the type of wasteful government spending we need to see eliminated in November's election."
The Legislature's Revenue and Taxation Interim Committee is scheduled to discuss and hear public comment on the Lake Powell pipeline funding bill at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday in room 445 at the state Capitol.