‘We’re approving water that doesn’t exist,’ says Sanpete commissioner

MANTI—The Sanpete County Commission detoured into a discussion about water allocation, a hot topic affecting the whole state, during its meeting Tuesday, July 20.

The discussion arose as the commission took up eight routine proposals, which collectively included 23 new home lots in the unincorporated county, most in areas not served by a culinary water system. All of the lots were one acre or larger.

“We’re getting into a situation right now where we’re approving water that doesn’t exist,” Commissioner Scott Bartholomew said.

Currently the county requires anyone building a home outside a municipality to have rights to .45-acre-feet of water for a home and 1 acre-foot total.

The minimum state requirement is a half acre foot for home and lot, but counties and other jurisdictions have the latitude to require more than that. 

“I feel like Sanpete County is overstepping its bounds requiring an acre foot of water,” Commissioner Ed Sunderland said. “…Why are we more than the state?”

Sunderland said the state owns all the water in Utah and merely grants people the right to use it. He said the state should be monitoring whether property owners have rights to enough water to meet their needs.

“The reason I say what I do is that the state is the one that controls that [water rights],” Sunderland said. “They’re the ones that monitor it; they’re the ones that hold all the authority on water rights. How come the county is different from the state?”

“But there are two or three problems with this,” Commissioner Scott 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, and 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.”

Bartholomew said especially in a drought year, owners who drill their own water wells can start to draw down the water table in a large area. “One well does not affect you. Two wells do not affect you. But all of a sudden, you’ve got 50 wells in [an] area. That starts to affect you. It starts to affect your springs…And there’s a point where you need to say, ‘Enough.’”

Gary Mitchell, the county zoning administrator, said his office is charged with verifying whether water rights exist 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 virtually water available], rather than spots of red with some green.”

Rep. Steve Lund, a former commissioner who represents Sanpete County in the Utah House of Representatives happened to be at the commission meeting. He recalled a meeting commissioners had with former Gov. Gary Herbert.

Herbert told them that years ago, when he was a county commissioner in Utah County, the county started to grow rapidly. The commission had to decide if it was going to preserve agriculture or give in to development.

“And he told us, ‘…Sanpete County’s going to start to grow very fast….And one of the ways you can monitor that, one of the ways you can help with that, is with your water,’” Lund said.

“Now, yes, the state owns all the water, but the commissioners have jurisdiction to approve or not approve, and to set the boundaries on what it [the water requirement] is. They just cannot set the boundaries lower that the state. They can do anything above that.”

Based on meeting agendas, since the beginning of 2021, the commission has taken up 22 requests adding up to 46 lots. A large majority of requests have been approved.