Environmental Politics, Think

Environews: Costs, liabilities shift from feds to Utahns with water project transfers

July 3, 2020

Amy Brunvand

Utah Senator Mike Lee, an advocate for privatization of federal public lands, has been boasting that a transfer of federal water infrastructure is a “minor miracle” that will give “local control” to Emery County and Uinta Basin water districts. In a news release, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt claims that the transfer will “save taxpayer dollars due to decreased operating costs and reduced liability.”

Since Bernhardt is specifically talking about federal tax dollars, his statement reveals the fact that costs and liability shift to Utah water districts.

Water districts have no process for public comment. Transfer of infrastructure to local water districts means less public accountability. (There is no reason to think that local managers will consider the interests of downstream users.) A trend of water project transfers is likely to reduce transparency, increase conflicts and make water more expensive.

The two projects scheduled for transfer are Emery County Project in east-central Utah and the Uintah Basin Replacement Project in northeastern Utah.

Federal land managers can initiate a transfer of water infrastructure, thanks to a new rule authorized by the 2019 Dingell Act. Congress only gets to vote yes or no.

This is an excerpt from our July Environews column. View the full article here.