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Utahns still aren't sure whether they support the construction of the Lake Powell Pipeline, but the state senate is already on track to hear a bill that could help fund it.

After a Wednesday afternoon hearing that attracted an overflow crowd, the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Standing Committee voted 5-2 to support SB80, which would create a water infrastructure fund and divert a 1/16-cent sales tax to it. That sales tax, which according to testimony generates more than $30 million a year, is currently dedicated to funding transportation projects, but Sen. Stuart Adams, the bill's sponsor, said that money was originally intended to fund water projects.

Opponents of the bill were quick to raise concerns that the money was intended to fund hotly contested, large-scale projects such as the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River projects. Adams acknowledged the pipeline could be a future recipient of the fund, but said that for now, the money from the sales tax would go to a revolving loan fund focused on helping local water authorities with improvements to their aging infrastructure.

"We don't know when [the funds will be used], we don't know where," he said, "but we do know that the quicker we start working on this problem, the quicker we start funding it, the less of a burden it's going to be on our kids and grandkids."

Committee chairman Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, fought to restrict the topic of conversation to the loan fund and local maintenance projects, but members of the public who came to speak — as well as committee members — kept the Lake Powell Pipeline at the forefront of the discussion.

"My concerns are attached to this bill," Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, said. "The Lake Powell Pipeline has some concerns in terms of the amount of money that's being talked about — we need to be aware of what these projects [that the bill would fund] might be."

It's not just lawmakers concerned about the funding of the Lake Powell Pipeline. In a poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, only 6 percent of surveyed Utah residents back the pipeline project regardless of cost, while 26 percent oppose it. More than half are undecided — 51 percent hinge their support on the price of the project, and 17 percent are unsure about the pipeline.

The state has set 2020 as an estimated groundbreaking for the project, but there is no official cost estimate.

Under a 2006 bill authorizing the state to construct the pipeline, the Washington and Kane county water conservancy districts — the recipients of the water from the massive project — will repay the state for its construction. The Washington County district has put the pipeline's price in the range of "about a billion dollars," but Karry Rathje, a spokeswoman for the water district, has said that figure is outdated and could be off considerably. She said the district is working on an updated estimate, as well as a draft repayment scenario.

"Nobody is more anxious to have a final cost estimate than the district," she said.

There was plenty of anxiety in Wednesday's meeting, where Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, questioned whether the county water conservancy districts are actually planning to pay back the debt. "They claim to have a repayment schedule, but it's a secret," he told the committee. "They won't present it to the public."

Frankel characterized Adams' bill as the beginnings of a state debt that will be difficult if not impossible to repay.

And Adams acknowledged the state has already put itself in a position where it might have to play savior.

"The Bear River Project and the Lake Powell Pipeline have been voted on by the legislature; they are state water projects," he said. "After they've done all they can on the local level, there has been a commitment to try to step in and help with these projects. After they use every resource, they need some state help."

Josh Palmer, a spokesman for the state Division of Water Resources, said his division is eager to see cost and repayment estimates.

"We are following up quite frequently with the entities involved about getting a cost estimate based on the best information that we have at this point," he said. "We know they are getting closer to having something that they are ready to talk about."

Frankel has requested copies of "all documentation of the Washington County Water Conservancy District's repayment plan" and "a schedule of payments referenced widely by the Division of Water Resources and [the water district]" via Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act. The request was denied on the grounds that such documentation does not exist.

"I think the water district ran a spreadsheet to repay the debt, and quickly found out they couldn't repay the entire debt without breaking basic lending rules," Frankel wrote in an email to The Tribune. "They know they can't repay the debt and that's why they won't share their debt schedule with the public."

Palmer said he understands the public's desire for financial information about the pipeline, but can also see why the engineering-types behind the project would be cagey about releasing an estimate.

"We don't think it's unreasonable at all for people to want an example repayment plan," he said. "When you're working with engineers, who are numbers people, they want things as accurate as they can get them. They don't like looking at theory. They see that the difference between burying a pipe 3 feet or 5 feet could be a difference of $50 million. Members of the public, they just want a ballpark figure."

A preliminary estimate could be available sooner, Palmer said, but no one will know exactly what the project will cost until the design is finalized — which the state doesn't expect to happen until late 2017 or early 2018.

In the meantime, he encouraged those with an interest in the project to get involved in the conversation about the pipeline's design. A Preliminary Licensing Proposal is currently available for public review; the state, Palmer said, hopes public feedback will help refine the document before a final version is submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this spring.

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