Moab may have enough water for ‘a couple of decades’
by John Hales
The Times-Independent
Jan 25, 2018 | 3030 views | 0 0 comments | 130 130 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mark Stilson of the Utah Department of Natural Resources explains water-rights adjudication to the Moab Area Watershed Partnership on Wednesday, Jan. 17.            
          Photo by John Hales
Mark Stilson of the Utah Department of Natural Resources explains water-rights adjudication to the Moab Area Watershed Partnership on Wednesday, Jan. 17. Photo by John Hales
Study will examine rights vs. resources vs. actual use

Even though water — or the lack thereof — is a big issue in southeastern Utah, an official from the state’s Division of Natural Resources says there’s plenty of time before the area has to worry about over-tapping the underground aquifer.

A more pressing issue, said DNR Southeastern Regional Engineer Mark Stilson, is to get the area’s water rights more in line with actual water use.

“We have a terrible idea about [water] use,” Stilson said on Wednesday, Jan. 17, during a meeting of the Moab Area Watershed Partnership. “We need to get better data on the water that’s in use in the valley.”

Doing so, he said, “needs to be the next part” of the water-management puzzle.

That may have come as some surprise to some at the meeting — attended by 30 or so stakeholders — who expected the big topic for discussion would be efforts to develop a groundwater management plan for the Moab, Spanish Valley and northern San Juan County areas.

Stilson said having such a plan — “not a big plan, just a few pages” — would indeed be important. “Groundwater is your cleanest, cheapest, best source of drinking water.”

But it wasn’t yet urgent, he indicated. “This is not a panic situation,” Stilson said, perhaps to the contrary of conventional wisdom. “You guys have a lot of time to figure this out, maybe a couple of decades.”

He based his assessment by contrasting southeastern Utah’s population-to-water-use ratio to that of more populous areas of the state — cities like Provo, Spanish Fork and Park City.

The local watershed/aquifer area is nowhere close to what’s happening in the Cedar City area, he said, where groundwater stores are being used faster than they can be recharged. DNR is more concerned, Stilson said, “to get the paper water rights to reflect what’s actually being done.”

As is the case in many areas throughout Utah, the state has issued more water rights, on paper, than there is enough water to fulfill those rights. But, Stilson said, “When we talk to people, their actual use is a fraction of what they have on paper.”

In coming weeks, the Division of Water Rights (DWR) will begin an approximately three-year process in the Moab area watershed to bring paper water rights in line with actual water use.

The process is known as “adjudication,” and it will involve every property owner, water-right holder and water-right claimant throughout the region — whether those people realize they have a water right or not.

For instance, if a property owner has old and unused water wells on their property, “You probably have a water right and just don’t know it,” Stilson said.

The formal process starts with a document that will be sent out to every property owner and water-right owner. It looks like a court summons.

“This has panicked a lot of people in the Salt Lake Valley,” Stilson said, when they see a court order and they know not why. For instance, say there’s a condominium complex that was built on a plot of land that once held a water right. Every condominium owner in the complex is going to get a summons.

The entire process is rather long and involved. The DWR on Tuesday issued a press release indicating summonses will be sent out in April.

“Receiving a summons in the mail can cause concern and anxiety,” stated Adjudication Program Manager Blake Bingham. “Although it’s a process we need to go through, there’s a good chance the summons doesn’t apply to most individuals and won’t require any action on their part … for property owners or residents in the valley who do not have a water right, or are just using their municipal connection, they can simply disregard the notices.”

An information meeting is scheduled for April 18 at 6 p.m. at the Grand Center.

Board to push conservation, possibly ban sink disposals

The Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency is looking at how to encourage people to take measures to conserve water, while stopping short of forcing them to do so. The leader in that effort, GWSSA Board Member Rex Tanner, wants something a little stronger than just “thinking about it.”

“I’m not known as someone who wants to tell the neighbors what to do, but I’m also a practical person,” Tanner said at a GWSSA board meeting last week, referring to his own suggestion that in-sink garbage disposals be outlawed, and that on-demand water heaters or other water-saving measures be required.

“In these houses where they have a bathroom 70 foot, 80 foot, 90 foot away from where the hot water heater is … there’s a lot of water wasted waiting for the water to get hot,” Tanner said, the practical side of him urging that such a thing isn’t sustainable. “We live in a desert.”

But making such requirements is way beyond the authority of the GWSSA.

“I think you’re looking at building code issues,” said agency manager Dana Van Horn. “We could definitely work with [homeowners], but anything beyond the property line has no jurisdiction with us.”

Board Member Mike Holyoak said, “I think you’re getting into something you don’t want to get into.”

Tanner maintained that it wasn’t such a stretch, considering other kinds of building regulations that are in place — but board members were not prepared to go that far.

“How do we go forward being proactive toward conservation?” Board Member Ken Helfenbein asked.

Van Horn suggested the board’s conservation committee come up with ideas. Tanner wanted more than that.

“Beyond ideas, I’d almost like to see us send a letter to the [county] planning commission, and the county council, and maybe the building department ... all three ... and see if we could push to get something done on those.”

In other business, the board received an update on the current project to build a new water tank and other infrastructure improvements. The initial site of the water tank, said Robert Worley of Sunrise Engineering, needed to be changed to higher elevation in order to provide more pressure. The tank will be built on land managed by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Agency (SITLA); both the original location and the new one being proposed are in the same SITLA zone already approved for the project, Worley said.

The change will require work to provide a road to the tank.

“It’s going to cost a little more, but it’s not a significant cost,” Worley said. After all, “It’s not a fancy road, it is an access road for maintenance.”

Worley said he anticipated being able to advertise for construction bids “probably in April.”

The project is estimated to cost nearly $5.3 million, with the bulk of that funded by USDA’s Rural Development Agency via a $2.08 million grant and a $2.7 million loan, payable over 40 years at 2.6-percent interest. GWSSA’s own portion of the cost is $500,000.

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