Should Sanpete stay in the Central Utah Water Conservancy?
By Rhett Wilkinson and Suzanne Dean
It’s a question Sanpete County taxpayers have raised over the years, occasionally in letters to the editor:
What is the Central Utah Water Conservancy District (CUWCD) and why am I paying property taxes to it?
Yes, the amount of tax is small. For the past five years, the owner of a $200,000 house, the approximate average house value in the county, has paid about $44 per year.
But those small payments from thousands of property owners in the county add up. In 2019, Sanpete County collected and remitted $674,296 to the CUWCD, headquartered in Orem. Over 10 years, the county has sent in nearly $5.6 million.
During those years, the CUWCD has raised the tax it levies. In 2010, the tax on an average house was $33, $11 less than last year. And 10 years ago, the amount the county remitted to the water district was $525,845, approximately $148,500 less than in 2019.
What does Sanpete County get for the money? That question is addressed in detail later in this article. Suffice it to say, the last time the water district put any significant funds into a water project in the county was 2013.
In 2019, while Sanpete County taxpayers were pumping $647,000-plus into the CUWCD, the district spent less than $20,000 on activities benefiting the county.
It spent $10,000 to support an agriculture-oriented committee that oversees distribution of water from the San Pitch River and about $7,000 for cloud seeding. And the CUWCD staff made five educational presentations here.
To understand what the CUCWD is and does, and how Sanpete County became part of it, you have to go back to 1956, the height of dam building and water reclamation in the West.
That’s when Congress passed the Colorado River Storage Project Act, which included the Central Utah Project (CUP) as a participating project. The main goal of the project, the biggest water project in state history, was to enable Utah to get its share of water from the Colorado River, as it courses through seven states.
There were six sub-projects in the CUP. Five of them mainly benefitted the Uintah Basin. But the biggest and most important subproject was the Bonneville Unit. The goal of the project was to bring water from the Uinta Mountains to the populated Wasatch Front.
The CUWCD was formed in 1964. It was to be the local sponsor of the CUP with the responsibility of selling CUP water to users, such as cities, agricultural irrigation companies and electric utilities.
Like other special taxing districts, the CUWCD, besides being an administrative operation, covered a defined geographic area. Initially it took in seven counties—Duchesne, Uintah, Summit, Wasatch, Salt Lake, Utah and Juab.
All of those counties were scheduled to have CUP facilities built in them, or plans called for aqueducts, tunnels or other channels that would bring CUP water to them.
In 1967, at the urging of the Utah Board of Water Resources, the plan for the Bonneville Unit was amended to also provide 36,000 acre feet of water in the Sevier River Basin, well south of the Wasatch Front.
With that action, five rural central Utah counties—Millard, Sanpete, Sevier, Piute and Garfield—joined the district. That brought membership to 12 counties.
As the CUWCD was getting set up, Congress decided Utah would need to pay back 80 percent of the cost of building the CUP.
So the CUWCD also became the repayment agency. In 1965, the water district signed a contract to pay back up to $157 million. Later, cost of the CUP went way over initial estimates. So in 1985, the water district signed a supplemental agreement, which brought total payments due to approximately $509 million.
At first, the idea was that money for repayment would come from water sales. But a couple of years after the first payment agreement was signed, the Utah Legislature authorized the CUWCD to levy a tax on properties in the participating counties. With all that accomplished, construction of the CUP finally began in 1967.
A history of the CUWCD posted on its website says, “It is important to note that without the revenue stream authorized by the state legislature (property tax authorization), the project would never have been approved.”
Work on various CUP dams and pipelines, mostly in Duchesne and Wasatch counties, proceeded slowly—too slowly from Utah’s perspective. As of 1990, the Bonneville Unit wasn’t even started.
Finally, in 1992, Congress passed the critical Central Utah Project Completion Act. In a major departure from historic water reclamation practices, Congress took the job of building dams and tunnels away from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and delegated it to a local entity—the CUWCD.
The Central Utah Project Completion Act also shifted still more of the burden of paying for the project to the state of Utah and the CUWCD.
The Utah Legislature picked up some of the added costs. But the CUWCD also raised its property taxes.
In 1994, because of escalating property tax levies, Sevier and Millard County withdrew from the district, reducing membership to 10 counties. With those withdrawals, the CUWCD withdrew the promise of the 36,000 acre feet of water for south-central Utah.
There was one clause in the Central Utah Project Completion Act that motivated Sanpete, Piute and Garfield counties to stay in the district. The act authorized federal funds for local water development projects in counties that did not benefit directly from the CUP. The federal money was channeled through the CUWCD.
Some of that federal money flowed to the Sanpete Water Conservancy District, which primarily put it into agricultural irrigation projects.
The book “Water, Agriculture and Urban Growth, a History of the Central Utah Project,” quotes David Cox of Manti, who has been involved in irrigation and water issues for decades, and who is a former member of the CUWCD board, as saying that for “every dollar Sanpete put into Central Utah, (it) got between two and three dollars back.”
In recent years, that cash flow has slowed to a trickle. In 2006, the CUWCD contributed $100,000 for an independent study by a national engineering firm of the viability of the Narrows Project, including the proposed dam and reservoir.
The study found the Narrow Project, as then constituted, was the best way for Sanpete County to capture 5,400 acre feet of water courts had awarded the county more than 10 years earlier.
The last project the CUWCD helped out with in Sanpete County was an important one. It was a $2.65 million project to rehabilitate the Fairview Canyon Tunnel, a 3,100-foot tunnel built in the 1960s to bring the 5,400 acre feet of water from the east side of the plateau through the mountain into Sanpete County.
By 2010, parts of the tunnel were caving in and there was 8 feet of rock rubble between the top of the rocky tunnel and the top of the pipe designed to carry water. A new plastic pipe and was installed, and the tunnel was backfilled with gravel. Today, the tunnel stands ready to bring water through the mountain.
The project was completed in 2012, with the CUWCD paying 50 percent, while the Sanpete Water Conservancy District (SWCD) and the Cottonwood-Gooseberry Irrigation Company in North Sanpete paid the other 50 percent. The CUWCD made its last payment in 2013.
The cessation of CUCWD funding for projects isn’t surprising, says Sanpete County Commissioner Ed Sunderland, who sits on the CUWCD board of directors, because federal funds have “disappeared.”
The fact that the federal spigot has been shut off is undoubtedly why, in 2013, Piute and Garfield counties withdrew from the CUWCD, cutting the number of member counties back to eight. Today, Sanpete is the only rural, central Utah county, among the five who started out in 1967, still in the water district.
In early September of this year, the Sanpete County Commission held a work meeting to discuss the county’s continued participation in the CUWCD. Attending were Tom Bruton, assistant general manager, and Chris Hansen, program manager, for the water district.
Sunderland made the case that if Sanpete County remained in the CUWDC, the district could and would provide important technical assistance and lobbying support to enable the county to complete an alternative to the Narrows Project that would enable the county to capture and use its 5,400 acre feet of water.
The SWCD, sponsor of the Narrows Project, has given up on building a dam and reservoir. Sunderland said those plans have been pretty well shot down by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Now the SWCD is working on a plan to suck water out of streams as they flow across private land on the eastern slope of the Wasatch Plateau. From there the water would be channeled through the Fairview Canyon Tunnel. Once inside county borders, the water would be directed into and stored in the Gunnison Reservoir.
The CUWCD will help with engineering and with meeting requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), Sunderland said. The district has expertise in how to distribute water to users, what to charge for water and how to collect money to pay back the project costs.
“Their expertise will be very instrumental in getting the distribution in,” Sunderland said.
With that, commissioners agreed to remain in the CUWCD for another year. “We anticipate being able to get that water started into the county within the next year,” Sunderland said.
“It all depends on…getting water started through the mountain,” he said. “…If that doesn’t come to pass and we can’t see that we are able to do that, we would probably leave Central Utah unless there are other avenues where they can start doing projects again in our county.”