Sanpete needs to address water availability before taps go dry

This is the first of two editorials about water in Sanpete County. The second editorial will run next week.

We all know that Sanpete County is growing. People are moving in from the Wasatch Front, buying lots, often in the unincorporated area, and building homes, often large homes. What we haven’t faced down is the fact that growth in our county is limited by the availability of water.

The West as a whole has been through what a Colorado Public Radio article describes as a “20-year megadrought.” A hotter climate is expected to continue. The Colorado River, lifeblood for 40 million people in seven states, including Utah, is down 20 percent from 100 years ago. Most reservoirs in Utah are below half-full.

If we in Sanpete County overdevelop, it is entirely conceivable that one day, residents will turn on their kitchen taps and nothing will come out.

A parcel may have water shares attached to it. In the past, those shares may have yielded 2 acre-feet, or at least 1 acre-foot, of water. Today, those water rights yield half or less of historic amounts.

At a Sanpete County Commission meeting a couple of months ago where the commission approved 23 new home lots in the unincorporated area, all an acre or larger, all supposedly with access to 1 acre-foot of water, Commissioner Scott Bartholomew sounded the alarm.

“We’re getting into a situation right now where we’re approving water that doesn’t exist,” he said. Commissioner Ed Sunderland countered that the state should be monitoring whether property owners, based on their water rights, have enough water to sustain their residential and agricultural needs.

“But there are two or three problems with this,” Bartholomew said, “because the state isn’t monitoring it. You get these homes out there, and all of a sudden, they don’t have enough water for their gardens, their animals…and their large families. And if you monitored it, you’d find out in a lot of cases, they’re using a lot more water than they’re allocated.”

Gary Mitchell, the county zoning administrator, said his office is charged with verifying whether water rights and a water supply exists for a parcel proposed for development.  

“You can call up the Utah Division of Water Rights map that we use to verify, and it’s mostly red (denoting no water available), rather than spots of red with some green,” he said.

Nearly all the home lots the commission approved that day are in locations not served by a municipal culinary water system. That means the owners will be drilling wells. And those wells could start to draw down the water table.

“One well doesn’t affect you,” Bartholomew said. “Two wells do not affect you, but all of a sudden, you’ve got 50 wells in an area. It starts to affect your springs (some of which feed culinary systems)…And there’s a point where you need to say, ‘Enough.’”

Utah Rep. Steve Lund, who was at the commission meeting, noted that under historic water law, the state owns all the water in Utah and grants rights to use water to property owners.

“But the commissioners have jurisdiction to approve or not approve, and to set the boundaries on what it (the water requirement) is,” Lund said. “They just cannot set the boundaries lower than the state (requirements). They can do anything above that.”

Decades ago, when access to some of our public lands was being threatened, commissioners set up an Access Management Committee, made up of knowledgeable citizens, to monitor federal-agency proposals that could cut off roads. That enabled commissioners to let agencies know Sanpete County opposed those plans.

Now we need to set up a similar countywide coordinating panel, made up of public officials, the zoning administrator, irrigation company leaders and municipal water superintendents to monitor water.

We need these knowledgeable people to map the county and recommend how many more homes and businesses can be supported in various zones before we simply run out of water. If proposals for development come in above those targets, commissioners and city councils must deny those requests.

We need to take our future into our own hands now, long before we turn on our taps and nothing comes out.