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Advisers to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert continue to shape a 50-year blueprint for state water policy and big-dollar dam and pipeline projects, but the public has yet to be invited to their latest series of meetings.
First convened in 2013, the Water Strategy Advisory Team released an initial draft of its report last fall. Since December, the roughly 40-member team has broken into smaller groups to revise specific chapters.
Dates and times for these meetings have not been disclosed, with officials claiming that because they involve informal teams of volunteers, the discussions are not subject to state open-meetings laws. A Salt Lake City media attorney said the Open and Public Meetings Act may indeed not apply, due to what he called a loophole in the law.
Along with calling for conservation, early versions of the team's report assert that the massive Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River projects must be built to meet future water needs, each expected to cost in the range of $1.5 billion. The draft calls for additional statewide water system upgrades that could total more than $18 billion.
Despite the magnitude of these issues, state officials say the team is correct in choosing not to disclose all its inner workings.
"This was a group that was picked to bring to the table their own understanding and knowledge based on decades of experience," said Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "It wasn't a group intended to summarize public input. ... And yet we've tried to make this, and I think we have made it, the most public process on water that this state has ever seen."
The advisory team comprised of state regulators, lawmakers, representatives of municipal utilities, industrial, academic and environmental interests hosted eight public meetings around the state through the summer of 2013 before it began drafting its report.
Last fall's release was based on feedback from these meetings, more than 800 comments collected online, and on information gathered during Envision Utah's "Your Utah, Your Future" surveys, according to the Governor's office. Envision Utah also collected public comments on its website following the release of the report.
Two of the advisory team's three co-chairs defended taking their work out of public view, describing it as a time-saving move. The third did not provide comment to The Salt Lake Tribune.
"That's always been a little bit of a challenge," said co-chairman and state Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, "How do you make it so that this group can move, and at every stage trying to get public input and trying to get it effectively, and when do you let the group just do its thing?"
Moreover, Hawkes said, the team has already collected so much public input that "there isn't a public comment that we haven't heard hundreds of times."
According to the Open and Public Meetings Act, Utah's governing bodies must issue a notice including the date, time and location of a meeting at least 24 hours in advance. But under its definition, a "public body" is one created by the state constitution, statute, rule, ordinance or resolution.
Members of Herbert's water team were personally invited to participate and never organized as a formal government body.
Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake City-based media attorney, said the Water Strategy Advisory Team seems exactly the sort of group state open-meetings laws were designed to govern.
"It sounds like this body has been given a significant charge by the governor," Hunt said, "and obviously ... there is a clear public interest in having this group operate in the sunshine."
Members of the public would not be turned away should they attend one of the ongoing discussions, said Ari Bruening, chief operating officer for Envision Utah. Bruening, who has helped to guide meetings of the team in the past, said the gatherings were not advertised to avoid attracting large crowds that might further delay the revision process.
Warren Peterson, another of the team's co-chairs, said what while no new deadline has been set for issuing a final report, the team plans to release its revised work for another round of public comment. The goal, Peterson said, is to get as many eyes on the report as possible.
But the team's initial report drew controversy last fall when the co-chairs at first refused to release the draft. Bold red text on the draft's original cover stated the document "is only for editing purposes and should not be distributed to anyone outside of the team."
Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council and one of those present at that September meeting, said at this point he has stopped trying to attend the advisory team's meetings.
"They've asked me several times not to speak at the meetings I've gone to, so it's kind of a waste of time," Frankel said. "They refuse to allow water experts they disagree with to speak."
With the advisory team now split into subcommittees, regard for public input appears to vary from one team sup-group to the next.
Lynn de Freitas, an advisory team member and executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake, said some of the three sub-groups in which she is involved have included public comments in their discussions.
"We're taking those comments to heart as we revisit the existing draft," she said. "We want to be sensitive to improving it, making it more reflective of public comment."
But Robert Gillies, director of the Utah State University's state climate science center, said in the work on his sub-group, he hasn't seen any comments from the public regarding the draft. He has read the comments the team initially collected, he said, but none regarding the draft report.
More broadly, Matheson played down the importance of public participation in creating the state's water strategy, given that the team's final product won't set state policy. Rather, he said, the plan is intended to inform future debates about water policy.
"Ultimately, as with anything, it's our elected officials who are going to make policy," he said, "and all of those processes will be open to the public, as they always are."