San Juan water district wins conditional approval for water rights transfer
by Rudy Herndon
Staff Writer
Sep 12, 2013 | 2517 views | 0 0 comments | 95 95 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A municipal water supplier in northern San Juan County can develop limited groundwater resources, as long as it adopts protective measures, the Utah Division of Water Resources ruled last month.

State Engineer Kent Jones gave the San Juan Spanish Valley Special Service District the authority to initially pump up to 600 acre-feet – or 195.51 million gallons – of groundwater annually from two areas south of Moab.

However, the district must submit a groundwater-monitoring plan before it can divert any water from the southern Spanish Valley or Bridger Jack Mesa-area aquifers, Jones ruled.

If monitoring data suggest the district’s plans will not affect existing water rights, the regional groundwater table or the environment, the state engineer may approve additional withdrawals.

At this point, though, Jones said his office does not have enough information to decide if the district can safely develop a full 5,000 acre-feet of groundwater and surface water, as it requested.

Jones’ 16-page ruling essentially allows the district to transfer its existing water rights from the San Juan River near Bluff to southern Spanish Valley, the Kane Springs drainage and the Colorado River near Moab.

Frank Darcey, who sits on the special service district’s board, said no one has a concrete development time frame in mind.

Yet based on the amount of monitoring work involved, he said the project won’t get under way in the immediate future.

“Because we’re starting from scratch, it’s going to take quite a while,” Darcey said Sept. 10.

“This is really a long-term thing,” he added. “It’s just going to have to be phased in every step of the way to ensure that we’re doing the right thing.”

The district’s first priority is to determine if its proposal will affect the surrounding water table. At that point, Darcey said a plan of action can be developed to safely map out the next step.

“We want to ensure that we don’t impact any existing wells in the area,” he said.

As for its plans to divert surface flows from the distant Colorado River, Darcey said those might never come to fruition, based on the potential price tag it would carry.

“That is not a preferred alternative,” he said. “That is almost an emergency, contingency-type thing … It’s really something that we don’t want to get into.”

Protesters respond to decision

Jones’ ruling drew a mixed reaction from a long list of protesters, which included the city of Moab, the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency, the Bridger Jack Mesa Property Owners Association, area residents and several conservation groups.

An attorney for The Nature Conservancy formally asked Jones to reconsider his decision, arguing that protesters should have the opportunity to review and comment on the district’s monitoring plan before he signs off on it.

Canyonlands Watershed Council Executive Director Chris Baird called the decision a prudent one, and said it ensures that a fair number of protections are in place. Yet he would like to see the state engineer adopt even more safeguards.

Baird said he’s not sure who should be responsible for monitoring the district’s activities. From his perspective, though, it should be someone who does not have a vested interest in the project.

“I don’t know that it’s necessarily appropriate for them to be doing the monitoring themselves,” he said Sept. 10.

One key thing that’s missing is a comprehensive study of the area’s groundwater resources, Baird said.

“We’re not entirely sure how much water we have,” he said.

Everyone supports the study idea, he said. Yet no one to date has answered the obvious questions: how much will it cost, and who’s going to pay for it?

Baird thinks various stakeholders might be able to piece some patchwork funding together, and he said that additional money could be available in 2015.

But until that study is available for all to see, Baird said Jones should take a very conservative approach to groundwater appropriations in the area.

“It is important that we don’t find our safe yield by surpassing it,” he said in a letter to the state engineer’s office.

Ruling places conditions on project

For his part, Jones does not believe that current withdrawals from the affected aquifers have exceeded that safe yield.

As a future precaution, though, he determined that the San Juan district cannot tap into new or existing high-volume wells within 1,000 feet of another user’s wells. Nor can it utilize high-volume wells within 3,000 feet of Ken’s Lake or the surrounding reservoir basin. (A high-volume well is defined as a well that pumps at least 50 gallons of water per minute.)

Under his ruling, the district would also be required to mitigate any impacts its wells might have on existing users.

For instance, the state engineer could order the district to supply impacted users with enough water to offset any losses they might incur. In addition, he could force the district to shut down any well that interferes with another user.

Major water users react to ruling

Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency General Manager Mark Sovine said he’s hoping that his organization can work with the San Juan district to minimize any potential impacts to both systems.

But he remains concerned that the San Juan district’s plans could interfere with his organization’s pending application for 1,800 acre-feet of water.

“The State Engineer feels that that is a separate issue,” Sovine said in an email message to The Times-Independent. “We respectfully disagree with him on this issue.”

Moab City Engineer Rebecca Andrus said that for the most part, Jones’ ruling addresses the city’s concerns.

She spoke with Jones several weeks before he issued his decision, and she said he talked at length about his concerns.

“I really appreciated the way he was considering this very thoughtfully,” Andrus said. “It seems like he was really thinking a lot about it.”

In the long run, though, Andrus also believes that a comprehensive and objective study of the area’s groundwater resources is necessary.

The general concern, she said, is that the aquifer doesn’t hold unappropriated water.

Ultimately, Darcey remains hopeful that the San Juan district board can meet with city officials, conservationists and anyone else who still has concerns about the project.

“We would really like to sit down with them,” he said.

As Darcey and other special service district board members see it, a central water system is ultimately preferable to hundreds of individual wells in the area.

“We’re wanting to be good stewards out here, and I think an unregulated punching of water holes is not the right way to go,” he said. “That’s why we looked at [creating] the special service district.”

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