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A newly released draft of Gov. Gary Herbert's 50-year water management plan is vastly improved from previous versions, according to the team that drafted it although not everyone is pleased with the inclusion of a pair of controversial billion-dollar projects.
The latest and likely final draft, which outlines a broad strategy for managing Utah's water supply and accommodating the state's projected growth, was released Thursday.
The product of work since 2013, the latest document emphasizes water conservation as essential to future water management. It recommends establishing protections for agriculture, natural ecosystems and water quality. It also calls for expanding and updating the state's water infrastructure.
The new report can be read at envisionutah.org. Public comment will be accepted online at the website through June 26. A public hearing on the matter will be held June 28 from 9 to 11 a.m. at the state Office Building on Utah's Capitol Hill.
The final document is due to Herbert on July 19.
While structurally similar to prior drafts, the new version offers more specifics, especially where conservation and environmental preservation are concerned.
"Utah has the distinction of being both one of the driest states in the nation and one of the fastest growing," the draft notes in its summary. "At the convergence of those two realities is the challenge of how we will provide water for a population that will double by 2060, while maintaining healthy farms and rivers, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers."
Climate change also plays a more prominent role in the new version.
The challenge of managing Utah's water, it says, "is magnified by climate projections from the state climatologist that show a significant decrease in snowpack. Snowpack provides more water storage capacity than all of Utah's man-made reservoirs, so that loss of snowpack would substantially reduce Utah's current water storage capacity."
The document also calls on state leaders to invest in more water-related science and to improve data to determine how much water will be needed in the future.
"Some of the recommendations will take time to implement as uncertainties, inadequate data, cost and present lack of coordination among stakeholder suggest that immediate action would be unwise or impractical," the draft says.
Its authors, members of the governor's 40-member Water Strategy Advisory Team, say the report has changed significantly from a previous draft released amid public outcry last fall.
"We really pointed out all the issues and tried to come up with solutions and let everybody know how we can make improvements," said Jane Whalen, a member of the advisory group who also sits on the board of the conservation group Citizens for Dixie's Future. "Everybody worked really hard on it, with lots of versions and lots of editing, and lots of changes."
Richard Bay, general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District and also a member of the advisory board, said he thought the document benefited from "many, many hours of time spent together in small committees working together."
He said he was pleased to see more detailed recommendations for leaving water in Utah's rivers and streams to allow ecosystems to thrive, and more specifics on how Utah's aging water infrastructure ought to be managed.
But the biggest difference in this version, he said, was "the consensus, the level of buy-in, the agreement on topics that had disagreement previously."
Whalen said she was disappointed the water strategy still includes mention of future construction of the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Project, both expected to cost more than $1 billion apiece. Her organization, which is an active opponent of the Lake Powell project, believes Utah can and should meet its water needs through conservation and other means, rather than developing more large-scale water projects.
"There's so much room for improvement," Whalen said. "Rather than funding large water projects, we could fund education, metering, and things like that."
Warren Peterson, one of the advisory team's co-leaders, said the draft attempts to stay neutral on the topics of the Lake Powell and Bear River projects, both of which have already been approved by the state Legislature.
"We were careful," said Peterson, an attorney who works for Farmland Reserve, a real-estate management arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints. The strategy "looks at the balance of options...rather than taking a definitive stance here."
The draft refers to both projects as "projected to be needed in the future," and discusses the features and benefits of each.
"Assuming that substantial conservation occurs and that all local projects are developed, there remains a potential gap between projected demand and supply, particularly in light of Utah's projected doubling of population by 2060," the draft says. "Regional water supply projects meet an important part of satisfying the gap between demand and supply."
Peterson said the group working on the document was not able to identify a single "silver bullet solution on water." The issues, he said, are simply too complex for that.
But he hopes its deliberations might serve as a model for how Utah makes decisions about water in the future.
"Our answer on how to solve problems is we need to build institutions that engage stakeholders," Peterson said. "You have to engage the entire spectrum of interests."
Herbert's 40-member team spent several months deliberating often in meetings not disclosed to the public to produce the revised strategy. A previous draft of the water strategy was criticized by both outsiders and team members as confusing and contradictory, while lacking in detail on key topics such as climate change.
The draft also took heat for recommending construction of the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River projects.
The latest draft report from a Gov. Gary Herbert's water advisory comitte can be read at envisionutah.org. Public comment will be accepted online at that website through June 26. A public hearing on the matter will be held June 28.