Spanish Valley growth hinges on water rights, consultant says
by Rose Egelhoff
The Times-Independent
Nov 23, 2017 | 2288 views | 0 0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As many as 7,300 new Spanish Valley residents could tax the long-term availability of water in the region, as outlined in the proposed Spanish Valley Area Plan.                  				     Courtesy photo
As many as 7,300 new Spanish Valley residents could tax the long-term availability of water in the region, as outlined in the proposed Spanish Valley Area Plan. Courtesy photo

A new initiative known as the Spanish Valley Area Plan envisions up to 7,300 residents in Spanish Valley. The planning effort was initiated by San Juan County and is being conducted by Landmark Design, a landscape architecture firm that has conducted planning projects for Ogden City, South Jordan, Salt Lake City and others.

“We’re looking at the long- term development and how the area is going to grow over the future,” said Landmark Design president and owner Mark Vlasic. “Population-wise this is equivalent to the population of Moab. So in some sense it is as if we were planning for a larger community.”

The Spanish Valley Area Plan has involved significant stakeholder input, with public meetings in September and October.

“[The September meetings] were focused on listening to the residents and the property owners to come up with principles to guide future development and we have ten principles that we have established or that we actually presented at this second round of public meetings to get feedback on whether people felt like they were correct and which ones they felt were the most important. So we interpreted what we heard, brought it back to them and let them weigh in on it and again, just evaluating that now,” Vlasic said.

Vlasic said the results were surprising. Residents said that preserving dark night skies, having access to open space and preserving the residential character of the area — as opposed to having a retail or tourism focus — were priorities.

Landmark Design also learned that Spanish Valley residents value the relative lack of regulation in the area.

“It’s a balance between too much control and too little control, that’s something we’ve also heard. Part of the reason people move here is to not be over-controlled,” Vlasic said. “It was very good to help us again as we developed our initial concepts to be thinking about what the current residents envision because they are our best sounding board of what the future residents might want as well.”

A plan to connect to Grand County’s sewer service and to develop a piped water system will allow Spanish Valley to grow, Vlasic said. Currently, most residents of Spanish Valley rely on well water and septic systems, limiting growth.

Jerry McNeely, public advisor liason for San Juan County, said the priority is bringing water and sewer to current San Juan County residents.

“San Juan decided to do water and sewer because of the housing, the 230-plus houses that are out there. The whole thing was set up to bring water and sewer to those houses,” McNeely said.

San Juan County worked hard to keep the cost of water and sewer hookups under $100 for Spanish Valley residents, he said.

“Basically we’re just trying to get rid of the septic [systems] … we’ve been told by certain entities in the state that if one iota of septic ever got into the aquifer, they would cut septics clear out … then the people who had septics would be stuck with either pumping them or doing away with them … we’re trying to clean up and take care of anything ever happening to the aquifer.”

McNeely added that the state is watching closely to make sure that the reservoir does not get overdrawn, saying, “There’s no way the state will let you take more water. It just doesn’t happen.”

However, where the area’s water will come from remains in question to some degree. The state of Utah is in the process of developing a groundwater management plan for Moab and the Spanish Valley area. As part of that effort, the City of Moab, Grand County, San Juan County, the State Institutional Trust Lands Association (SITLA) and other organizations came together to fund a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study of groundwater in Moab and Spanish Valley, according to Marc Stilson, an engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights.

Though the final report has yet to be released, preliminary results reported at a Sept. 21 meeting found that Moab may have less water than previously thought. The USGS study, the first comprehensive evaluation of the Moab-Spanish Valley groundwater budget since the 1970s, indicated that the safe yield for the area is likely between 12,000 and 14,000 acre-feet of water per year, rather than the 13,000 to 17,000 acre-feet ranges previously estimated. There are currently more than 20,000 acre-feet of water rights allocated on paper in the Moab-Spanish Valley area.

Before the preliminary results of the study came out, San Juan County submitted a change application to transfer 5,000 acre-feet of water rights from the San Juan River to the Spanish Valley area.

The priority date of the San Juan County water right is Sept. 27, 2017, one of the most junior rights in the valley.

Stilson said that the application was approved with several conditions, including that San Juan County would initially only be allowed to develop 500 acre-feet of water in Spanish Valley. However, the change application was approved before the preliminary results of the USGS study were known.

Jeff Adams, executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council, said that the planning efforts may be premature given the current state of San Juan County’s water right. The watershed council is a nonprofit organization with a declared mission of protecting the waters and watersheds of southeast Utah.

“I think what we’re seeing from the USGS is there’s not as much water as was previously thought … We’re going into a process to determine a groundwater management plan and an agreed-upon safe yield so to have another major municipal development based on very junior water rights when … there’s twice as many paper water rights as there is potential water and we’re using a lot of that potential water already,” Adams said. “It just seems to me premature to have another major development, a major municipal user get started at a time when we’re still trying to figure out how much water we have available for such uses. So I’m not necessarily against the idea of them developing … everybody is figuring out how much water rights they have, how much water they're using.”

Vlasic said that the next meetings for the Spanish Valley Area Plan process will be in mid-January, when Landmark Design will present a draft plan for public feedback. The plan will be adjusted to incorporate feedback then taken to the San Juan County Planning Commission and the county council for adoption. Landmark Design has also been retained to help develop basic development guidelines for Spanish Valley, Vlasic said.

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