Utah water-use data study underway

Utah water-use data study underway

Two Utah engineering firms are partnering to improve the quality of water-use data in the state.  The firms will use a $300,000 contract with the state to analyze how the Division of Water Resources can improve its data collection.

Water-use data is more important than ever

Utah is one of the driest states in the nation; usually only second to Nevada.  With a population that is expected to nearly double by 2060, meeting Utah’s growing water needs is a major concern.  Water-use data is paramount to project water needs in the decades to come.  Improving data collection can help Utah manage its limited resources.

However, a 2015 Legislative audit found that a patchwork of 475 community water systems were not always accountable or accurate in submitting water-use data.  Records showed that one community in the Bear River basin had not reported any data since 2002.  Other communities failed to break out categories for water use, relied on estimates when meters were unavailable, or simply got calculations wrong.

 Efforts to improve water-use data collection

Since then, state legislators have acted to give regulators more power to force systems to report.  In 2016 the Division of Water Rights received additional funding to put an employee in the field.  The goal is to work with public water providers to encourage reporting and identify obstacles.  Additionally, Utah lawmakers directed the Division of Drinking Water to develop a point system.  Water providers are assessed points if they fail to report water-use data, or if the data is falsified.  With enough points, the water system could be deemed unsafe.

Improving water-use data will also help the state develop new water resources.  Utah is working to initiate two large water development projects.  The Lake Powell pipeline and plans to divert water from Bear River could help with Utah’s water demands.  However both plans have met with some resistance.  The high cost and potential environmental concerns have brought the projects under close scrutiny.  Governor Gary Herbert has made it clear that improving water-use data collecting is a prerequisite to large water resource development.

Both engineering firms are helping the Division of Water Resources analyze the 2015 data. They are expected to present a report to the division sometime in December.  The report should help Utah revisit those numbers and improve collection of water-use data going forward.

Cache County Water Conservancy District

Cache County Water Conservancy District on ballot

For more than a century now, Cache Valley communities have been able to keep water flowing from homeowners taps and farms properly irrigated without help from a formal water conservancy district.  However, as this November’s election arrives, Cache County voters will attempt (for a third time) to form the Cache County Water Conservancy District, which state politicians and local engineering firms say is needed to protect Cache Valley’s water resources.

Proposed Purpose of the Cache County Water Conservancy District

Cache County has said of the proposed water conservancy district:

The purpose of a District in Cache County is to protect and conserve our long-term agricultural, environmental and municipal water interests with an emphasis on securing our allocation entitlements pursuant to the Bear River Development Act.  The County has experienced increased demands related to water issues and reduced resources to meet the demand.  A district would promote water conservation and safeguard adequate amounts of water for the inhabitants of the areas included within the District at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable manner of delivery.

Nearly Unanimous Support for Putting Cache County Water Conservancy District on the Ballot

Cache County Water Manager Bob Fotheringham has said that the time for Cache Valley to have its own water conservancy district has finally come, and that such an entity will even the playing field for Cache Valley residents.  “I believe that the benefit of having the district is so we can manage water better than we’ve managed it in the past and meet the needs of Cache Valley,” Fotheringham has explained.

Fotheringham’s excitement for the establishment of the Cache County Water Conservancy District has seemed to attract the support of a number of other government officials across Cache Valley.  In fact, 18 of 19 municipal governments voted unanimously to allow the Cache County Water Conservancy District ballot measure to be voted on this November.  The lone dissenting vote was cast by River Heights.

Opponents See Cache County Water Conservancy District as a Way to Levy More Taxes and Access Untapped Bear River

While the water conservancy district measure has made the ballot in November, not everyone is in favor of creating the Cache County Water Conservancy District.  Zack Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, has said that the formation of a water conservancy district will be nothing more than another level of government bureaucracy separating Cache Valley residents from their water.  Frankel has also said that the creation of a water conservancy district is just an excuse for Cache County to assess property taxes, which will amass millions of dollars for the county to spend on water projects, including projects on the largely undeveloped Bear River, which Cache County is entitled to 60,000 acre-feet of the approximately 220,000 acre-feet of water that could be developed pursuant to the Bear River Development Act.

Cache County Water Conservancy District Will Be Independent Entity

While the question of whether Cache County Ultimately needs a water conservancy district will be decided by voters in November, it is important to understand the proposed structure of the Cache County Water Conservancy District, including how much the conservancy district can tax residents.  Cache County has said, “The final organization and governance of the District would be created based on input from the citizens.  The District Board of Trustees can include up to eleven members and must include a majority of elected officials.  Input and communication about the formation of the Board are needed to ensure the District serves all water users in the District area and is a fit for Cache County’s needs.”  Furthermore, once created, the Cache County Water Conservancy District will function as an “independent entity to plan, safeguard, and manage water resources for the benefit of the public in the geographic area they represent.

Third Time is the Charm?

As noted, this will be the third time that voters will go to the polls over the fate of the Cache County Water Conservancy District.  The other two attempts to create a water conservancy district in Cache County have failed because voters have never felt comfortable forming a district made up of appointed individuals who have the ability to assess taxes.  The reality is Utah’s water conservancy districts use taxpayer money to build infrastructure like pipelines and dams, pay salaries and lobbyists and even build new buildings. But when a citizen has beef with how this money is spent, there’s no recourse at the ballot box.

Even still some have admitted that a water conservancy district is “the perfect example of taxation without representation.  According to Dan McCool, director of the University of Utah’s Environment and Sustainability and Studies program, “They can tax, they can borrow, but they are in most cases unelected by the public at large.”

10 of 11 Board Members to be Elected

So, what is different this time around?  First, water conservancy district board members may now be elected pursuant to a change in the Utah Code in 2010, which allows water conservancy district board members to be elected or appointed.  Additionally, Utah Code § 17B-2a-1005 requires that a majority of a water conservancy’s board members be elected as opposed to appointed.  Cache County has said that 10 of the water conservancy district’s board will be elected, while the 11th board member will be appointed to represent the interests of the agricultural community.

“There will be no other district in the state that will be operated like this district because it is a new way to manage,” Fotheringham says.  “I think we’ve resolved those issues for people and I believe it’s going to be transparent; it’s going to be accountable and it’s going to do what the people in the area of Cache Valley want it to do, and that’s what we need.”

Conservation Focus

Second, Cache County has said that water conservancy districts have become more and more focused on water conservation following the pronouncement by Utah’s governor in 2000 to reduce per capita water use 25% by 2050.  Cache County says that since that time, Utah as a whole has conserved 18%, but that Cache County has only been able to conserve 6%.  Accordingly, Cache County says, by way of the Cache County Water Conservancy District, its citizens can become more involved in the conservation process.

Tapping Into the Bear River

Third, Cache County has maintained that plans to development the Bear River has progressed since the last time the issue was on the ballot.  Property to build a pipeline from Box Elder County to Salt Lake County, and that reservoir sites in Box Elder County and Cache County are currently being evaluated for construction by water conservancy districts up and down the Wasatch Front.  While any pipeline will not be completed until at least 2035, Cache County has said that the formation of the Cache County Water Conservancy District will provide “the needed structure and authority to form regional contracts that must be in place to utilize Cache County’s Bear River water allocation.”

Cache County Population Growth

Fourth, Cache County population has grown by some 30% in recent years.  According to Cache County, “The population for the County given in the 2000 census was 91,391.  The 2010 census population for the County was 112,656 with a projected population for 2013 of 120,046.”  As a result, Cache County says the growing population will only increase the demand for water and will reduce any current excess water supplies.

Groundwater Management Plan

Finally, the groundwater management plan enacted in September 1999 limited the amount of water that can be drawn from underground aquifers in Cache County.  As it stands now, Cache County says that existing water rights (usually agricultural water rights) have to be used as replacement water.  Cache County says, if formed, the Cache County Water Conservancy District, will allow “for more efficient conversion of water from agricultural to municipal use with the ability to bank water rights.  A conservancy district is needed to have the resources and focus to develop the Bear River allocation.  The developed allocation can help preserve agricultural land by giving an alternative source for water rights in areas that currently have no water rights, such as bench areas, as these areas are developed.”

Increased Property Taxes

As it relates to taxation, the proposed Cache County Water Conservancy District will have the authority to assess taxes.  Cache County has said the water conservancy district may impose a maximum property tax of “0.0001 per dollar before certain activities are commenced, 0.0002 per dollar after certain activities are commenced, and 0.0003 per dollar if an additional levy is necessary to pay maturing bonds or debts.”  In practice, Cache County has said that the tax will play out as follows: “the tax on a $188,000 residence would be $10.34 using a tax rate of 0.0001, $20.68 using a tax rate of 0.0002, and $31.01 using a tax rate of 0.0003.”

Cache County has said the creation of the Cache County Water Conservancy District and a corresponding tax will allow Cache County to protect its shrinking interest in water from the Bear River, provide Cache County residents with a board that is focused on water issues and has the authority to make water decisions and agreements that will protect Cache Valley’s water, and will help the county to carry out the Cache Valley Water Master Plan.

Will Voters Go for it This Time?

While Cache County has offered a host of reasons for adopting the Cache County, will it achieve its objectives, or is its creation just another way to tax Cache Valley residents and provide special water projects to a select group of residents or businesses as opposed to the public at large?  Time will tell, but at least Cache Valley residents will control the issue via the ballot box.  All eyes will be keenly fixed on election night in November.

* Photo Cred.: news.hjnews.com

Copyright 2016