HB43: Water rights bill gets closer to becoming law after 14 years

By Makenzie Wistisen
Capital West News

SALT LAKE CITY – One of the most debated and contentious bills in the Utah Legislature’s recent history is on the verge of getting a House floor debate after five sponsors, eleven attempts at passage and 14 years.

Most Utahns may not even understand what the bill does, but the old axiom that water in the West is one of the most controversial issues proves true with HB43, sponsored by Rep. Kay Mclff, R-Richfield. HB43 would amend the requirements for a water rights change application.

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield

Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield

As a recent committee hearing, Sterling Brown of the Utah Farm Bureau approached the witness table with a history of the bill and its evolution, beginning in 2001. After meticulous edits and rewrites, tension rose from supporters who would no doubt be devastated to see SB43 return to yet another year of revision, patiently awaiting 2016. The bill was forwarded to the full House for debate.

As lawyers seem to snip-snap back at one another over minor drafting errors and amendments to the proposition, the root issue of the bill became muddy.

As Attorney Steven Clyde clarified, “There has always been tension between water companies that own the water right and the shareholders who use the water and have an equitable ownership in the water right and what they can and cannot do. The courts over the years have said the shareholders, because they are equitable owners, have a right to modify the use they’re making of that water but they are part of a corporate structure. They’re also bound by the rules and regulations of the corporation and can’t do things that impact corporate members or other shareholders.”

Essentially, HB43 was designed to create a process for shareholders to file change applications.

The bill is attempting to strike a reasonable balance between shareholder and company interest in hopes of resolving tensions in a way that allows all parties to move forward with the change. McIff hopes the bill would protect the interest of the companies and the other shareholders who choose to irrigate. The bill facilitates means for both parties to work out such disputes.

Brown continued, “Most people in the Capitol building today, take water for granted. They believe water comes from the tap. The people I represent, believe water comes from God. . .That partnership between shareholder and water company is vital to the sustainability of the agriculture business and frankly all of us.”

While most citizens may find water policy change application amendments boring, water is the central element that sustains human life on earth. Indirectly or directly affected by the changes, much care should be taken, proponents said.

Eldon Packer, president of Lake Bottom Irrigation Canal Co. in Provo, is one of many who foresees the need for further changes to the bill.

Packer said, “The companies have very little resources to be able to fight something like this and luckily we’ve been able to put some good things in place due to some of the drafters of this bill that have helped protect us but it still does not afford us the protection that we need to be able to continuously use that water in a good manner.”

While many would agree with Packer on various platforms of opposition to the bill, the fact being that the bill has been revised and revisited by experts for over 13 years, speaks to its reliability, accuracy, balance and soundness.

As final thoughts were brought to the committee, legislators are reminded that water, as established by HB43, is “real property.” As Rep. Melvin Brown, R-Coalville, emphasized in speaking for the shareholder, “Water equals money. . . Your water right, your share of that right has value and I think we as the Legislature have the responsibility to protect that value.”

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Categories: Rural Utah, Utah Legislature, Utah News

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