It takes a district: Utah landowners control groundwater use

by Jamie Hansen

Standing in a circle of verdant alfalfa shoots, Cody Staheli peers from under his Staheli Farms ball cap, looking beyond the irrigation lines to the snow-packed mountains framing southern Utah's Escalante Valley. This year's snowmelt is expected to be higher than average. "I try not to cuss at the mud," Staheli says. "Without water, none of us would be here."

But the extra snowmelt won't change a basic fact about the valley's groundwater: For decades, landowners have held rights to much more of it on paper than the aquifer can sustainably yield. In 2006, legislation gave Utah the power to manage the groundwater it had long over-allocated in valleys around the state. The Escalante Valley became the test case for reducing groundwater use.

As farmers and ranchers felt their livelihoods threatened, a multi-year political, legal and ideological debate ensued. Finally, this March, legislation was passed that allows communities to create their own plans for managing groundwater.

Other southern Utah communities also face impending groundwater shortages. They're closely watching the Escalante Valley, where a soon-to-be-formed water district, authorized by the legislation, will likely set a statewide precedent as it seeks to preserve both the aquifer and the community's economic viability.

"The (Escalante ranchers) recognize they have a problem," says state Sen. Dennis Stowell, R, who sponsored the new bill. "This allows them to solve it the way they want rather than through a mandate from the state."

Between 1935 and 1959, the Office of the State Water Engineer allocated about 45 percent more groundwater than the Escalante Valley's aquifer could replenish. As farming expanded, shifting from barley to thirstier grass and hay crops, the aquifer began to shrink. Since 1948, the water level in some wells has dropped more than 100 feet. Other wells have run dry. Around 2005, large fissures, some hundreds of feet long and up to six feet deep, appeared in the valley's soil, indicating that the aquifer was subsiding.

The over-allocation happened partly because groundwater is difficult to gauge, says Deputy State Engineer Boyd Clayton. "With surface water, when it's gone, it's gone," he says. With groundwater, even when the aquifer is being depleted, there's still water to pump: "People don't accept the prospect of not using it just because someone says it shouldn't be available." The problem is compounded by "the basic nature of the water-right appropriation business," which encourages allocating more water than exists so that "excess" water never goes unused.

The 2006 legislation allowed the state water engineer to establish groundwater-management plans for reducing usage in over-allocated areas. State Engineer Jerry Olds identified several "critical" areas, with the Escalante Valley at the top. He introduced a plan in 2007 whereby the valley would reduce its groundwater use by nearly half over 90 years.

To the valley's farmers, ranchers and homeowners, Olds' plan seemed anything but simple. Under Utah's water-management system, some stood to permanently lose all their groundwater rights. "That kind of reduction would be catastrophic for the third- and fourth-generation farmers whose livelihoods rely on those water sources," says area rancher and Enterprise City Mayor Lee Bracken. However, the law also allowed communities to come up with alternative, voluntary arrangements to reduce water use, provided they were approved by the state engineer.

So Bracken and the other local water users did something unusual for a group of competitors: They suggested pooling their water rights in order to share the burden of the reductions, in addition to seeking grants to compensate for the rights that must be retired. But the group they formed, the Escalante Valley Water Users (EVWU) association, disagreed more and more with Olds over how the reductions should happen and especially over the timeframe. Tensions heightened as Olds and the EVWU debated the best solution, and in late 2008, Olds resigned. The group then sought an official way to take charge of its groundwater and formalize an agreement among its members. Last year, it approached legislators for advice, and the bill enabling local groundwater management was the result.

The bill, SB-20, transferred primary responsibility for groundwater management from the state engineer to a community-run water management district. "This is a way to control our own destiny," says EVWU president Mike Brown.

As the bill neared passage, nearby communities raised questions. Can a community with its own economic interests at heart effectively manage its groundwater? Could such a district, which can tax water rights without involving elected officials, misuse its powers? Would it threaten adjoining water-management areas? Most neighboring entities now appreciate the bill's do-it-yourself spirit, but plan to watch closely as the law is put into practice.

Later this spring, the EVWU will meet with State Engineer Kent Jones to discuss the groundwater district's boundaries. Then they'll work out the details of the management plan and petition Iron and Washington counties for permission to form the district. The process could take two years or more.

The group is determined to soften the economic impact by stretching out the reductions as long as possible, perhaps by decreasing groundwater use by just 5 percent every 20 years. At that rate, it could take up to 180 years before the area is no longer mining its aquifer. Jones will have to decide if that timeframe is acceptable.

Staheli says he believes the group is dealing with the groundwater issue in a way that will benefit future generations. "We're here for the long run. We need to make sure we're good stewards of the water for generations to follow."

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