Cox Decree of 1936 not a solution to Sanpete water needs in 2021

This is the second of two editorials on the water situation in Sanpete County. The first editorial ran last week.  

The word, “drought,” is on everyone’s lips. Some farmers find themselves fallowing fields while others are selling off livestock because there’s not enough water to grow feed. City officials are worried not just about having enough water for pressurized irrigation, but having enough to fill a glass of water or flush a toilet by the end of the year. 

Councilman Rod Taylor says of Gunnison that his city is getting virtually nothing from the company that normally supplies irrigation water. Pressurized irrigation volume is down to 20 percent of normal with rationing taking place. 

For the first time in memory, Taylor says culinary water is in question. The city is down to a single source and is scrambling to add resources to get through the year.

Cory Hatch, public works director in Manti, says his city is encouraging residents to restrict watering lawns and gardens. The city itself has drastically reduced the watering schedule for the ball fields and parks. 

“We don’t have a culinary water problem,” Hatch says, adding the caveat “yet.” That’s because the city owns the Jet Reservoir at the top of Manti Canyon that allows the city to bring  water from the eastern slope, across the Skyline Drive, to Manti’s side of the mountain. 

Hatch says a water study is underway to determine how the city will deal with projected growth. “We haven’t restricted development yet,” he said, “but it may come to that in the future.”

Other cities are suffering too. Mt. Pleasant is restricting lawn watering to one day a week. Fairview is having to juggle precious resources to accommodate culinary and irrigation use at a time when Fairview Lakes are at historic low levels. Wales is scrambling to get its new well back online and has had to turn down new building permit applications due to questionable water availability.

All of which takes us back to 1936, when several counties, dozens of cities and scores of water organizations agreed in court to something called the Cox Decree, named after the judge who issued it. The object of the decree was heading off major water lawsuits.  

The decree dictates allocations of water on the Sevier River drainage, of which the Sanpitch River drainage is a part. The decree limits the Sanpete Valley communities to the water that flows through on a daily basis. The idea was to leave water in the river for users downstream. 

The Cox Decree prohibits our communities from developing any storage facilities (reservoirs, ponds etc.) that could provide backup water during drought conditions such as we are currently experiencing. 

In essence the decree says, “If the creek goes dry where you’re at, too bad. Get your drink of water somewhere else.” 

We believe the Cox Decree is badly out of date. It does not recognize the growth that has taken place in the Sanpete Valley since 1936. Like jurisdictions all around us, Sanpete County communities need and deserve the right to develop water storage infrastructure. 

As it is, Millard County benefits at Sanpete County’s expense. Delta area hay and corn fields are being irrigated all season long—and the excess water runs off uselessly into Sevier Lake—while Sanpete County farmers and communities severely restrict water use. In essence, Delta is drinking the precious Sanpitch River water we are denied.

Millard County has Yuba Reservoir, Horseshoe Reservoir and Gunnison Bend Reservoir, all huge water storage facilities. Sevier County has Otter Creek and Piute Reservoirs. Sanpete Valley north of Sterling has none. 

The legal fact is that no one in Utah owns a drop of water, even if it comes from a well. It is all owned by the state, which permits people to use water only as the state dictates. 

The Utah Division of Water Rights, of its own volition, can and should revisit the Cox Decree. It can and should adjust Sanpete Valley’s water rights to allow for reasonable water storage. It’s time to address water realities as they are today rather than as they were in 1936.