Assistant State Engineer James Greer told the Grand County Council on Dec. 17 that the draft plan would help preserve resources within the park, while protecting the right to develop other water resources beyond its boundaries.
The proposed agreement has been in the works since 1999, when officials from the Utah Division of Water Rights and the National Park Service began to discuss the need for formal recognition of Arches’ water resources.
According to Greer, the proposal aims to resolve the potential for conflicts between the park and water rights holders in the surrounding area.
“I really believe that this is a very good thing for Grand County,” Greer said.
If approved, the agreement would allow the National Park Service to divert up to 120-acre-feet of water per year for administrative purposes, including domestic, culinary, landscaping and campground-related uses. It would also give the agency the annual right to deplete up to 60-acre-feet from within the park’s boundaries. (One acre-foot equals about 325,851 gallons of water.)
The rest of the water covered under the proposed agreement would remain free-flowing in order to benefit Arches’ riparian areas, wildlife habitat and other in-stream park uses.
According to Greer, the state has already adopted similar agreements with other National Park Service units, including Zion National Park, as well as Timpanogos Cave and Natural Bridges national monuments.
In this case, the final draft that the two sides agreed upon addresses a key concern that past and present county officials raised in 2007, and then again four years later.
In 2011, a majority of former county council members formally voiced fears that an earlier version of the proposal would have restricted future development of groundwater resources beyond the park’s boundaries.
The latest update would carve out a water protection zone on state and federal lands surrounding Arches, including portions of the Courthouse Wash, Sevenmile Canyon and Salt Wash basins. But Greer noted that it would not place any limits on potential diversions of groundwater from the Navajo aquifer, which underlies the upper Entrada aquifer.
“We will no longer allow [new] development of the upper area, but we will still allow development of the deeper Navajo (aquifer) area,” he said.
Greer said the two sides agreed to that provision after researchers found that the two aquifers are “pretty distinct.”
In another key concession, the park service agreed to subordinate its in-stream and in-situ uses to all but one of the active or previously approved water rights inside the greater protection area.
“That is a big win for the state,” Greer said.
Grand County Council vice chairman Lynn Jackson said he believes the final draft is a reasonable compromise that will protect park resources, while still allowing some groundwater development in the surrounding area.
Council chairman Gene Ciarus said he’s fairly sure the council will support the proposal as written. However, he cautioned that representatives from Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) might want the opportunity to address the issue.
SITLA Deputy Director Kim Christy has already submitted a letter voicing his agency’s support for the proposal.
“[It] is our opinion that the Agreement reasonably protects the property interests of SITLA and preserves our ability to develop and use trust land in the vicinity of the Park,” Christy said in his letter to the state Division of Water Rights.
However, no one from SITLA attended the county’s Dec. 17 meeting to reiterate the agency’s position.
If the county council ultimately decides to endorse the draft agreement, it will go on to Gov. Gary Herbert for his approval. Before it can take effect, however, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division must also sign off on the document.