For decades, staffers at the office of Utah’s State Engineer have worked their way around the state, adjudicating water rights district-by-district. In April 2018, Moab residents were tapped into this process, and a final decision on all claims in the area will be made in a matter of months.
One year later, the process has now reached Spanish Valley, where residents who want to keep their water rights have until Aug. 8 to file a claim or to ask for a 30-day extension.
It’s all part of a months-long process that will take roughly two years to complete. The result: a final decree on who holds water rights in Spanish Valley.
What is going on?
The state engineer is undertaking an effort – one that has lasted over 100 years – to adjudicate all of the existing claims to water rights in Utah. Historical information about this process is outlined later in this report.
As part of this ongoing effort, the state engineer requires that individuals with claims to water rights submit or verify their information. Many claims are already on record with the state engineer; in these cases, a water rights holder will receive a pre-filled form in the mail that must be verified, signed and sent back. These forms will be mailed out in the coming weeks.
Once the state engineer receives a returned form, it is added to a list of pending inspections. During each inspection, the state engineer verifies that the water right holder is putting their water to “beneficial use,” as required by state code.
After certifying beneficial use, a claimant’s direct involvement in the adjudication process is typically done. The water right is not final until many months later, but most rights certified as having a beneficial use are later finalized, or perfected.
During a public hearing on April 25 about the adjudication process in Spanish Valley, Assistant State Engineer Blake Bingham said that part of the reason the state engineer called Spanish Valley’s name was that water rights had become a focus for locals.
“I think what’s prompted this … is that there’s an increased interest in how much water is being used in Spanish Valley,” Bingham said at the meeting.
The United States Geological Survey recently concluded a study of how much available groundwater exists in the valley, the findings from which are expected to be made public this summer. The state engineer is among the stakeholders with early access to the study, which is undergoing final review.
The study is vital to informing the state engineer, municipal leaders and private water rights holders of how much water is underground and in streams (also refered to as wet water) compared to how much water is claimed as water rights, also known as “paper water.”
“There’s a new geological report coming out saying how much wet water there is in the valley,” Bingham said. “Adjudication is one way to get rid of all the rights that have not been used to understand how much paper water we have.”
Brief history and process
The modern system of determining water rights was established in 1919, but formal legislation on the matter dates back to 1852, when county courts were the ultimate authority in determining who had rights to divert streams for private or public use.
Around 1902, Utah began formulating how it as a state would determine and record citizens’ rights to use surface water. This system later expanded to include groundwater so that wells would be regulated similarly to stream siphons.
Since then, the state has been trying to form a public record of existing water rights. This would thwart over-appropriation of water, which happens when the total amount of water claimed by different parties is not physically present, meaning some parties will not get as much as they claimed.
Forming this public record also removes ambiguity from a system that was historically decentralized. Prior to 1896, when Utah became a state, church leaders and county courts were the entities doling out water rights rather than the state.
This meant that different localities applied different standards and used different record-keeping practices, so when the federal government pressured states to come up with a rigorous system of determining existing water rights in 1902, Utah was faced with a challenge. It had to bring together all of the disparate county, church and other water claims into one, statewide record of water rights.
How the state is catching up
Today, Utah district courts determine water rights, including rights to groundwater, as guided by “proposed determinations.” Since the courts are not equipped to visit residents at their properties to determine whether they are putting water to “beneficial use,” they rely on the state engineer to submit these proposed determinations.
These are informed by many sources of information. Water rights claimants can cite court records, county records and other sources to evidence the legitimacy of their claim to a water right. Even rights decreed by ecclesiastical leaders prior to Utah’s declaration of statehood in 1896 may be accepted.
Once the state engineer receives these claims and verifies each water right is being put to beneficial use, the list of water rights is vetted publicly then certified by the state engineer in the form of a proposed determination, which it sends to the court.
From there, state courts make the final determinations on the state engineer’s findings, and the water rights are perfected by the court.