Utah's river kid takes on the water buffaloes

Where is Utah's water needed most: in fading farming towns or booming cities?


SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - In the Beehive State's ultra-conservative, ever-suspicious political climate, fighting to keep rivers and landscapes wild can seem like tossing pebbles at a dinosaur. You mostly just irritate the big guy.

But five years ago, a young boater named Zachary Frankel went head-to-head with one of the biggest dinosaurs in the state - the Central Utah Project (CUP). The CUP had been trundling along since 1951, when the Bureau of Reclamation had unveiled its plans to build a grab bag of dams, aqueducts and pipelines to capture the state's share of the Colorado River for farmers in northern and central Utah (HCN, 7/15/91). Only half of the projects had been completed, others dropped entirely, but a few major dams were still in the plans.

In 1995, when Frankel founded the nonprofit Utah Rivers Council, he didn't intend to take on the CUP. On a shoestring budget, he launched a campaign to win "wild and scenic" designation for rivers such as the Colorado, the Green, the San Rafael and the Escalante, critical veins of wildlife habitat in this largely desert state.

He soon discovered, however, that you can't dive into water issues in Utah without tangling with the CUP. And he did, almost immediately. The state entity that oversaw the CUP planned to dam the Diamond Fork River southeast of Provo, destroying wildlife habitat and plugging one of the state's last free-flowing rivers. Frankel set out to stop it, and neither Utah's water establishment, nor other conservationists, took him seriously.

By the end of its third year, however, the Utah Rivers Council had shocked just about everyone by orchestrating the defeat of the Diamond Fork Dam. Frankel did it by showing urban taxpayers that they would pay millions of dollars for the dam yet would receive none of the water.

"We won the only way we could," he says. "Taxes."

Frankel, 31, sits surrounded by stacks of technical documents, diagrams and maps in his ramshackle Salt Lake City office. His Chesapeake Bay retriever, Ailsie, lolls on the floor, growling and trying to wrestle two tennis balls into her mouth at once.

"For me and many of those involved, it's a moral issue," he continues. "But money talks. We've learned to convert our message with decision-makers to a message of dollars and cents. Still, my heart is not interested in saving more money. I want to save ecosystems."

Now, Frankel has leapt into the middle of a roiling battle over one of the last pieces of the CUP and the future of the booming Wasatch Front (HCN, 3/16/98: Olympic onslaught: Salt Lake City braces for the winter games). He's hoping that a small alliance of environmentalists, rural farmers and Native Americans, backed by Salt Lake Valley taxpayers outraged at dumping tax money into another rural irrigation project, will save a river and stop a dam.

Dams go out of style

The current scuffle in the water fight is over the Bear River, more than 100 miles north of Salt Lake City, which flows through a patchwork of farmland, three states, seven small hydroelectric dams and numerous irrigation ditches to the Great Salt Lake. There it nourishes the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, central to Terry Tempest Williams' book Refuge.

In 1991, Utah Gov. Norm Bangeter signed the Bear River Development Act, authorizing larger dams along the Bear for water storage, should the need arise. The water would be divided among rural counties along the river and sprawling Salt Lake County. The northern counties chomped at the bit to dam the river, but without Salt Lake County's buy-in, they couldn't afford to move the plan.

Then, in mid-1990s, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, which serves Salt Lake County, decided it was time to cash in on the promised water. The state then proposed building a dam to siphon roughly 50,000 acre-feet of water per year to the district's Salt Lake Valley suburbs.

David Ovard, the district's general manager, says demand for water in the Salt Lake Valley will double in the next 20 years. Water conservation will cover some of that difference, he says, and the district may have to instigate "brownouts," cutting lawn watering during drought years. But "the governor and all the mayors think growth is good," Ovard says, and more people need more water.

Frankel disagrees. "We have plenty of water right here in Salt Lake City, if water users would be less wasteful about using it," he says, pointing out that Utah is one of the most arid states in the West, yet it ranks second highest in the country for water consumption. "Our water rates are the lowest in the West and third lowest in the nation. If we raised rates, our water use would go down and the need to build more of these destructive dams would diminish."

Last spring, residents along the Bear joined the fight. In April of 1999, opponents formed the Bear River Coalition and turned out in droves to town meetings. Dozens showed up at a Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District meeting in July to protest $3.1 million budgeted for pipeline easements that would allow Salt Lake County to pump water from the proposed reservoirs.

Coalition co-chair Will Bagley from Salt Lake City says the era of dams has ended, and Utah needs to get with the times. "My dad used to look at my female cousins and say, 'Bad fashion comes to die in Utah,' " Bagley says. "Bouffant hair-dos were popular in Utah until well into the '80s. Bad ideas come to die in Utah."

Coalition members Laura and Fred Selman farm in the Bear River Valley near Tremonton. Fred says the dam's reservoir would drown more than 260 acres of prime farmland, while more than 60,000 acres will dry up, as reservoirs flood irrigation canals. "Acres and acres of bottomlands in this state will be affected," he says.

"It's like they're trying to push us into this," says Laura. "But it will destroy our livelihood."

Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, whose great-grandfather was Shoshone Chief Sagwitch, says the reservoirs would drown ancient graves, Shoshone history and sacred places. "When the pioneers came, their intent was to settle, without any regard for the people who were already here. It didn't matter that the land meant something to someone else," she says. "Now, people in Salt Lake City are making decisions for the people up this way. It's like they don't have any concern for the residents here. Like we don't mean enough for them to ask our opinion."

Critics also argue that the dams would dry up much of the 74,000-acre bird refuge, destroying habitat for the over 250 species of migrating waterfowl that use it as a stopover each year.

Two birds with one stone

Dam opponents say there are other sources of water.

One of those sources is running right under Salt Lakers' noses, through irrigation canals that once served the valley's farms, says University of Utah economics professor Dan McCool. That water isn't any good for drinking, but it could be used to water lawns and gardens, which account for roughly half of the water use in the Salt Lake Valley.

"Utah does not have a water problem. We have a grass problem," says McCool. "There's enough water in this state for tens of millions of people. We'll choke on our exhaust before we run out of water."

There's another ready source of water down south, says Zachary Frankel, from one of the last and most contentious pieces of the CUP. The half-finished Utah Lake Drainage Basin Water Delivery System would convey water from Strawberry Reservoir through a tunnel, and into the Diamond Fork Pipeline. From there, the water would run into the Spanish Fork River. Some of the water would run into Utah Lake, to make up for water Salt Lake County diverts before it reaches the lake. The rest, about 50,000 acre-feet, would be piped south, at a cost of $240 million, to water fields of alfalfa in Juab County.

The apparatus to get the water to Utah Lake should be complete by 2004, but the last section, the pipeline to water those fields of alfalfa, raises questions. Roscoe Garrett, a Juab County alfalfa farmer who has sat on the conservancy district's board for 35 years, says the farmers need the water. "We have no storage system, and no way to build one here," Garrett says. "If Juab County is going to grow and prosper, we need a reliable water source."

But in 1998, the farmers and investors who would receive the water, known as the Strawberry Water Users, announced that they wanted to turn around and sell it to cities at a profit of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Interior Department, which built Strawberry Reservoir, initially protested, arguing that it holds the title to the water, and the farmers couldn't sell it. The Central Utah Water Conservancy District agreed that the proposal to sell the water to cities called into question the need for the project.

The Strawberry Water Users backed off. But this January, the group, which already controls 50,000 acre-feet of CUP water, asked the Interior Department to allow it to sell some of its existing water to cities and use the new water for farms.

"It's pointless," says Frankel, who argues that the water users are trying not to let their right hand know what their left hand is doing. "They're acting like there are two pots of water, when in fact it all comes from the same place." Whether it's the new water or the old that goes to cities, he says, it will mean the same thing: Taxpayers will pay millions to build a useless water project, while a handful of investors will get rich selling the water to cities.

Instead, asks Frankel, why not send the remaining CUP water north to the Wasatch Front, and kill two birds with one stone: save taxpayers millions by not building the pipeline to Juab County, and save the Bear River by quenching Salt Lake City's thirst with CUP water.

"The CUP water is a better water source than the Bear River," says Frankel. "It's our biggest viable alternative to damming the Bear."

Officials at the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, however, balk at any proposal to send the water to cities. "I'm kind of old-fashioned, I guess," says Roscoe Garrett. "At one time we had to make a decision between building Jordanelle (Reservoir, which serves Salt Lake City,) and sending water to rural Utah. The board, in good faith, decided to send Salt Lake City their water first and our water would come later. Now it's our turn."

District spokeswoman Christine Finlinson says the district does not have the authority to change where the water is sent without approval from Congress. If they do, she says, the district may have to repay as much as a half a billion dollars in infrastructure costs. "That would be disastrous."

Salt Lake County, for its part, passed a resolution in 1996, saying it will not accept the CUP water.

A sleeping giant awakens

Still, Frankel hopes that the same forces that helped defeat the Diamond Fork Dam will conspire to kill the Juab County pipeline. He says city folks in Salt Lake County will pay 71 percent of the state's projected $115 million cost share for the pipeline, but will receive none of the water. Juab County, on the other hand, will pay less than 1 percent of the cost, and receive the lion's share of the water.

A state audit of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District last summer added credibility to Frankel's plan. The water needs of the state have shifted in the 50 years since CUP was planned, according to the report. As the population has grown, urban centers such as Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden have boomed, while farming has dwindled. The plan to send water south to Juab County is "questionable," wrote State Auditor General Wayne Welsh, and Congress, in its authorizing legislation, left room for the district to change its plans and send the water to cities.

"Water is an issue in which the Cowboy Caucus continues to hold a lot of power because it's so essential to their lifestyle," says University of Utah law professor Bob Adler. "Urban legislators have not had to focus on it, because unlike other urban areas in the West, Utah's cities are relatively well endowed with water."

But the sleeping giant is stirring, says Paul Gillette with the state Division of Water Resources. Already, more than 87 percent of Utah's population lives in urban areas. By 2050, experts expect 5 million people to live along the Wasatch Front, up from 1.7 million today. Salt Lake County will run out of water by 2010, according to Gillette, while Salt Lake City will use up its supply by 2020.

The Central Utah Water Conservancy District is feeling the heat. The district has decided to finish the Diamond Fork delivery system that will carry water to Utah Lake, but it will reconsider the pipeline to Juab County.

"We have to go back to the drawing board on that system and hold new scoping meetings," says Lee Wimmer. "It should be quite a process." He says it will be at least two or three years before a final decision is out.

Up north, on the Bear River, the state has also retreated. Following the groundswell of dam opposition last summer, says Gillette, his division started considering alternatives to dams. He now thinks that they can delay any dams for 20 years. Instead, the state will pump Bear River Water into an existing reservoir, Willard Bay, and pipe it to Salt Lake County from there.

"The people up there are willing to fight," he says. "We're not going to build until the locals are ready."

But these changes may only be delaying the inevitable, says Dennis Strong, assistant director of the state Division of Water Resources. Unless the Wasatch Front gets serious about conservation, 50,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear won't quench its thirst for long. "It's about growth," he says. "The ethic in Utah is growth. I don't see that changing in the near future."

Frankel, who has dreams of moving to the Pacific Northwest and writing a book, understands that his job is far from over. Over the course of five decades, much of the CUP has been shot down or has self-destructed. But Utah will surely fight to get its full share of the Colorado River, rather than watch it wash downstream for states such as California (see cover story).

Fighting water projects in Utah, Frankel says, "is like a B movie. They kill the monster just so you can get up for popcorn. When you get back to your seat, the monster's back."

The author writes from Moab, Utah. HCN Associate Editor Greg Hanscom contributed to this report.


  • Zachary Frankel with the Utah Rivers Council, 801/486-4776;
  • Lee Wimmer with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, 801/521-5346;
  • The office of the State Auditor General, 801/538-1033.

More information about CUP can be found in Water in the West, available from High Country News for $29.95, 800/905-1155.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Lisa Church

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