Following the canal collapse in Logan, which killed three people last year, the governor's office asked Rep. Fred Hunsaker R-Logan, to take some action to prevent another tragedy in the future. As a result, he is proposing legislation that would require canal companies seeking state funding to create management plans, identify hazards and outline steps for canal improvement and safety. However the public would never get to review the plans as the bill specifically exempts them from Utah's open records law.
Improving public safety is both commendable and difficult, especially in tough economic times with little money for infrastructure improvement, oversight or enforcement, but that is all the more reason citizens need information about the safety of structures near their homes and property; then they too can provide ideas and input and even generate support for more public spending for improvements when necessary.
Working with the Executive Water Task Force, a group of government land and water agencies and the Utah Farm Bureau, Hunsaker crafted the bill which he said is a first step to increased canal safety without requiring anyone to spend any money.
"I will be the first one to say this is not perfect but it is a step in the right direction," Hunsaker said.
Canal companies in Utah are mostly private cooperatives of farmers and landowners living adjacent to waterways, Hunsaker said operators know their own problems best and could provide an accurate assessment if they aren't afraid of being taken apart by the public if they were to reveal any possible hazards.
House Bill 60 would require canal companies to submit a management plan to the state every 10 years. While the state would certify that the plan has been written, it would not retain a copy, and a new exemption to the Government Records Management Act GRAMA would protect the plan from public inspection even by the courts in the event of a lawsuit against the canal company.
Hunsaker said citizens could be reassured that if passed, canal operators would more systematically assess and manage risks.
"The public can also have some comfort in knowing that the emergency management plan would be developed in conjunction with the first responders. The plan allows them to sit down annually and exchange information about what to do if there is a complaint or if someone has observed something that is not just right, such as water leaking," Hunsaker explained. "Citizens could then call the city, and the city would know who to call and work with before the disaster occurred, and they would know how to get the water turned off in a hurry and avert the disaster."
Although since the management plan would not be held by the state and not be reviewed by citizens or the courts, it's hard to imagine information being freely shared, easily accessed, or of much real benefit to citizens.
"I'm just anxious to get something moving even though it's not ideal," Hunsaker said.
House Bill 60 is not the only effort in the Legislature to limit information about water issues to the public.
House Bill 169 would let government agencies close the door on discussions concerning the sale or purchase of water rights.
So, for example, public bodies currently in the midst of a heated dispute about water issues in the Snake Valley could restrict citizens from the discussion.
Government has been transacting business concerning water rights for more than 30 years without an exception to the Open Meetings Act. As water becomes a more critical issue in a desert state with a growing population, now is not the time to cut out the voice of an informed citizenry.
Utahns concerned about how governments spend money should also be concerned about a bill sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, that would protect salary information of public employees. Although government salaries are the taxpayers' No. 1 expense, under his proposal information about how that money is dispensed would be removed from public scrutiny.
Now is the time to call legislators and tell them transparency is the right way to govern, because once the information is out of the reach of Utah's Open Records and Open Meetings Law, like water running from a broken canal it's almost impossible to reclaim.