Water war looming in Utah?
Lawsuits spark worries over use of CUP resources
Rodger L. Hardy
Deseret News staff writer
SPANISH FORK — For
decades during irrigation season, water has flowed through the old
Strawberry Tunnel and later the Syar Tunnel in Diamond Fork Canyon,
funneling 61,000 acre feet of Strawberry Reservoir water into the Sixth
Water Creek aqueduct and down Diamond Fork Creek to the farmers in the
Since the late 1940s, farmers and city
leaders planning for growth have looked for a better way to move more
water from Strawberry into their fertile valleys. For most of their
lives, that was the promise and the plan, south Utah County city leaders
But now those officials are worried that
they won't get the additional water after all.
Last year, the Strawberry Water Users
Association, which receives the Central Utah Project water through
Diamond Fork, filed three lawsuits against the federal government and
the Central Utah Water Conservancy District based in Orem over title to
the irrigation water and how the water can be used.
The suits will take years to resolve,
water district director Don Christiansen said.
"It's a nuisance," Christiansen
said. "It doesn't benefit anybody."
The litigation covers a plethora of
grievances, but ownership of the irrigation water is a major concern
because as growth continues, local government leaders may want to
convert some of it for use in their cities and towns. That could be a
windfall for SWUA's 2,200 shareholders, mostly south Utah County
SWUA has had contracts with cities dating
to the 1920s that allow the water to be used for lawns and gardens, but
now the federal government says that's municipal and industrial use and
won't allow it, SWUA general manager Gary Aitken said.
The U.S. Department of Interior says it
holds title to the water and only it can convert it. Last April, SWUA
filed petitions in two state courts over the water rights dispute and
one in federal court alleging civil rights violations by the government.
The petitions won't be ready for hearing
until after January 2003, Aitken said.
Under that backdrop, the conservancy
district is building a pipeline through Diamond Fork Canyon to bring an
average of 101,900 more acre feet of water from the Syar Tunnel to the
Wasatch Front. Of that, 84,510 acre feet needs to flow annually into
Utah Lake as part of an exchange with Jordanelle Reservoir water needed
for growing Salt Lake County. South Utah County already has contracts
for 1,590 average annual acre feet of the water, although it isn't yet
taking it. That leaves 15,800 acre feet still available, and the target
of what is developing as a water war between central Utah's north and
The South Utah County Mayors Association
has asked for federal intervention.
According to a preliminary water
allocation study, only Salt Lake County will receive the water through
2050, with north Utah County getting some starting in 2030. But the
assessment stops short of being a preliminary plan, Christiansen said.
"We just don't have a preliminary
plan at this point," he said.
Salt Lake County water districts are
receiving less than half their contracts now and won't get the rest
until the Diamond Fork project is completed, Christiansen said. The
pipeline is the last leg of the Bonneville Unit of the federal $2.3
billion Central Utah Project for the state's share of Colorado River
Completion of the project will allow the
creeks that are flushed out every irrigation season to be restored to
their natural flows.
Before the final decision is made over
who will get that last 15,800 acre feet, the conservancy district must
go through a federally mandated public opinion and information-gathering
process that could take as long as three years. The last of the scoping
meetings were held in February with final public comments due March 30.
Conservancy district officials were not
surprised leaders in Utah and Juab counties who attended the scoping
meeting at the Provo City Library expressed concern over the future of
water in their respective areas, CUP project manager Mark Breitenbach
But Salt Lake County folks, many of them
fishing enthusiasts and environmentalists, seemed more worried about
environmental issues. They were concerned how potential changes in
stream flows would affect their fisheries as structures, including a new
power plant at Deer Creek Reservoir, are built, Breitenbach said.
"Most people (in south Utah and east
Juab counties) were not happy with where their water is going," he