When Utah environmentalists began complaining about new water-conservation proposals during a recent public hearing, farmer Howard Riley leaned toward the man next to him and muttered: "It depends on how you define conservation."


Riley, a director of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, represents farmers in Juab County and southern Utah County who would receive most of the $850,000 Congress is expected to appropriate this year for water conservation in northern Utah.


Under a recommendation to the conservancy district board, which administers the new program, farmers would receive about $582,000 in federal funds to replace flood irrigation systems with sprinklers and other devices that use less water. The farmers would contribute about $290,000.


All the saved water would be kept by the farmers to supplement their scarce late-season supplies. The extra water would boost profits by about $100 an acre.


While these projects meet the legal requirements for water conservation, they worry environmentalists and wildlife groups, which had hoped some saved water would be left in rivers to benefit fish and sustain wetlands.


"An extra crop of alfalfa - I don't call that saving water. I call that increasing production," said Carol Withrow, vice president of the Great Salt Lake chapter of the Audubon Society.


Darrell H. Mensel of Midway, a board member of Trout Unlimited, added: "If Congress is providing the money for these conservation projects, they should be able to require that at least a portion of this money protects in-stream flows."


Farmers have a different view.


"If a farmer can save water and hang onto it, it still belongs to him," said Vic Saunders, spokesman for the Utah Farm Bureau.


"I don't know why they (the environmentalists) are concerned," he added. "They got $15 million from the Central Utah Project Completion Act to keep water in the streams, protect wildlife and mitigate damage caused by the water project."


When Congress authorized $922 million for completion of the Central Utah Project in 1992, it provided money to repair environmental damage caused by the massive project and it required local officials to begin work on an aggressive water-conservation program.


Of the total appropriated, $15 million went directly to the Central Utah Mitigation group, to be used for environmental purposes. But Congress also offered up to $50 million over the next several years to help fund water-conservation projects. The expectation was that conservation would both increase the amount of irrigation water farmers had, thus delaying the need for big, damaging projects, and return some water to natural systems. So far, only the first goal is being achieved.


Applications for 30 projects totaling $56 million already have been submitted to the water district, but only seven were ready for action this year.


A committee ranked the projects, recommending funding for five, including three farm projects, a golf course project that would use irrigation water from a canal instead of drinking water, and the recycling of cooling tower water for a Salt Lake City business, Terra Diamond.


The Central Utah Water Conservancy District board recently accepted most of the committee's recommendations, but the public may see more benefits next year. Jeffrey W. Appel, an attorney who represents several wildlife groups, said the debate has prompted the water district to reconsider the definitions of terms such as "public interest" and "environmentally acceptable."


"The redefinitions would enhance the attractiveness of proposals that include an in-stream flow. That would move the program closer to the spirit and intent of the water-conservation provisions of the law," he said.


* Jim Woolf





The reporter covers environmental issues for the Salt Lake Tribune.