Tapping Out

Utahns Face an Increasingly Tight Water Supply

Gaylen Webb

June 6, 2013

Other water development projects are progressing throughout the state. Bay says his district and its partners just com-
pleted one of the largest pipeline projects ever built in Utah, the Provo Reservoir Canal project, which replaced the Provo Reservoir Canal with buried 10.5-foot-diameter steel pipe from the mouth of Provo Canyon to the Point of the Mountain. The new pipe will save an estimated 8,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Bay estimates the water projects his district has engaged in will cost approximately $1.5 billion through 2035 or 2040.

Part of the need for additional water storage projects stems from the fact that, as Hirschi explains, Utah is notorious for high-water years and low-water years, with back-to-back periods of drought. Hence, water districts like Bay’s have to approach water supply planning from a worst-case scenario. Bay says his district plans on a water yield based upon what it would be after a five- or six-year extended drought.

A Battle for Resources

John F. Kennedy is attributed with saying, “Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes—one for peace and one for science.” While media coverage has made prominent the issues between Utah and Nevada regarding Las Vegas’ access to water beneath the Snake Valley in the West Desert, that challenge is not the only water battle to be waged.

Matheson says there are issues over water all of the time within the state and among states. “Utah is not an island unto itself. Water issues are regional as well,” he explains. “The reality is that water doesn’t respect political boundaries, so we have to work through legal processes and thoughtful conversation to resolve the issues. Spending our time fighting over water doesn’t get the water where it is needed.”

            No one knows that more than Sanpete County resident Mark Jorgensen, who has farmed and ranched in the county since he was 17. Jorgensen scans the parched alfalfa on his 300-acre spread and scratches his head in puzzlement. What little snowpack Mother Nature dropped on the Wasatch Plateau this past spring is nearly gone, along with the runoff. He’ll be lucky to get two crops of hay from his farm this year.

It takes about two crops to break even, he says, three to make a profit. Jorgensen can’t do much about Mother Nature, but that’s not what makes him scratch his head. It’s the legal battles that have raged for nearly 80 years between Sanpete and Carbon counties. Carbon has stymied attempts by Sanpete County to build a storage reservoir called “the Narrows” on the Wasatch Plateau. At 17,000 acre-feet, the Narrows project isn’t much more than a puddle by most standards, but the Carbon County side feels that capturing the runoff would be detrimental to its economy, and has thus vehemently fought the Narrows project, even though leaders there signed an agreement in 1984 saying they would stop challenging Sanpete County’s rights to the water.

On the other hand, Alexander and leaders in Sanpete County feel the Carbon County folks are holding their livelihoods hostage. “No industry wants to come in here because there’s no water. A lot of folks here won’t even raise a garden and the lawns burn up. What little water we have is used to keep the trees and shrubs alive,” he explains.

The state has come down on multiple occasions in favor of various aspects of the Narrows project. In fact, the Utah State Legislature passed resolutions favoring and encouraging the development of the Narrows project, yet the residents of Sanpete County have had to stand by while leaders from the two counties slug it out in court. Most recently, Sanpete County received a Section 404 permit from the Bureau of Reclamation allowing the county to proceed with the Narrows project, however funding must yet be acquired and no one on the Sanpete County side of the battle believes Carbon County will let the permit go unchallenged.

Utah has always had its water challenges, but the state has been fortunate that those who have gone before were forward thinking, focusing not only on how they would provide for themselves in the immediate term, but for the long term as well, says Matheson. “And we have benefited from that. We now have the stewardship and obligation to make sure we are doing the things today that will allow future generations to prosper here. That includes sufficient water for domestic use to drive the economy, but also water for the natural world, which is so much a part of our quality of life. Finding that balance is a challenge, but it is something we have to do and I think that we will do it.”

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