Water war looming in Utah?

Lawsuits spark worries over use of CUP resources

By 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 valley below.
      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 say.
      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 farmers.
      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 south.
      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 water.
      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 said.
      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 said.


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