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Research report recaps Utah water development history

By Sun Advocate

Utah boasts a unique history in the annals of western water development. State leaders have developed a comprehensive management strategy and, since 1947, Utah has implemented no primary institutional changes regarding water distribution.
While Utah receives an average of only 13 inches of precipitation annually, local amounts vary significantly. Most of the precipitation is trapped in the mountains as winter snowfall. Runoff flows down to the valleys during the spring and summer months.
The Utah Foundation recently released a research report highlighting water development in the state. The report describes the history of projects and the role taxes play in developing water resources.
“The complexity of water management in Utah is surprising. The many overlapping agencies with different missions sometimes cause conflicting rules, such as conservation efforts running up against city requirements for bluegrass lawns or other thirsty landscapes,” pointed out senior research analyst Janice Houston.
Water development in Utah evolved through three main stages – a localized, cooperative period; a wave of private, for-profit development; and the current model of government- planned resource development, pointed out the foundation report.
During 1847-1865, water was viewed as communal property and individual usage rights were subordinate to community needs.
From 1870 to 1900, development became a private venture, with attempts to sell water at a profit to consumers.
Between 1900 and 1947, development evolved into a joint venture between local, state and federal government agencies charged with supplying water to the public.
When the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, survival depended on the efforts and cooperation of the entire community, explained the foundation report.
From 1847 through 1852, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints administered Utah’s water resources. Basically, communal rights to water were recognized as superior to individual rights. In theory, no individual should profit at the expense of the community.
In 1852, legislation passed to move water administration from the church to county courts. Irrigation experts and historians regard the Utah legislation as one of the most prudent of water rights administration guidelines in the early west.
The courts were to administer water rights and adjudicate disputes based on community interests, common sense and on-site inspection of projects as well as by legal precedent. In the event a senior water rights holder’s actions jeopardized the community’s supply, the courts could compel the party to cease or remedy the practices.
The court system contributed important legal precedents to Utah’s current water administration system. First, some centralization of the allocation process at the county level is desirable. Second, development and administration of water resources by parties closest to the resource make for practicality. Third, public interest can be served by direct action on the part of the government.
In many ways, the county court system helped direct water administration and capacity in Utah. However, the courts played a minor role in water development and allocation outside the Wasatch Front. In rural areas, many residents were able, through cooperative efforts, to manage water without formal governance, indicated the foundation report.
Water development in Utah circa 1850-1865 was a hodgepodge of irrigation cooperatives that constructed canals and small dams for agricultural use, city administered residential systems and a few private development corporations. Thesystems had water masters to oversee construction, repair and to ensure levels. But often, there was no communication and development by one entity came at the expense of another.
The period from 1870 to 1900 was one of transition. With the advent of the transcontinental railroad, Utah opened to migrants and visitors. A key import from the East was the technical expertise of university and government scientists. A twofold problem greeted the scientists. First, water resources were allocated via crude measurements failing to accurately account for natural variance in river flows. Second, the Utah Legislature was silent on water development. Starting in 1851 and continuing until 1875, the state turned responsibility and authority for water administration over to cities and towns.
As scientific measures became more exact and experts realized resources were finite, state lawmakers passed an 1880 act to record vested water rights. Thestatute shifted the water ownership from the realm of the public into private hands. An individual could sell land and retain water rights. Unappropriated water could be claimed and the county courts’ role became one of resolution as well as record keeping.
The legislation allowed water to be divided pro rata among all primary users in case of drought or shortage. The practice sharply differed from western states adhering to the first in time, first in right method of allocation that left latecomers to bear the brunt of a drought.
In 1894, Congress passed the Utah Enabling Act, granting 500,000 acres of federal land to the state for water resource development.
A second important occurrence was the passage of the 1894 Carey Land Act, authorizing federal land grants in arid areas and placing reclamation responsibilit on states. Local governments were charged with enacting plans for irrigation development and land distribution.
Federal statutes and management programs in neighboring states compelled Utah policy makers to take a more active role in water development, indicated the foundation report. But it was not until the U.S. Congress passed the National Reclamation Act of 1902 that water resources in Utah were systematically developed.
With the egislation, Congress reaffirmed that settlement of the western United States was a matter of public interest. And settlement could not be achieved without federal support. The act provided funding for water resource reclamation work in 17 states.
The Utah Legislature formed the arid land commission to work with the federal reclamation service in identifying projects. Due to the state’s sanction, the commission was able to secure more federal money than private water developers could obtain. Utah became a focal point for federal water development.
The largest remaining obstacle facing water development was Utah’s legal framework. Congress instructed BOR to follow state laws and avoid initiating projects until water rights were defined and repayment organizations established. The Utah Legislature responded by passing a fundamental water law in 1903 to clarify and codify water issues. The basic 1903 guideline remains in effect.
From 1906 to 1935, Utah concentrated on encouraging development and land reclamation via seeking federal funds for projects to enhance the efficiency of water use across the state. The ideal position for state developer was to work with the federal government on jointly planned projects.
The results were a large inventory of dams, canals and pipe structures throughout the state and jobs for Utahns during the Great Depression along with significant public debt in the form of bond issues and a direct financial obligation to the federal government.
One feature of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation involvement was the right of the federal agency to determine the price of water supplied by reservoirs. BOR also determined what percentage of suppliers’ revenues came from property taxes.
In the early part of the century, California was already experiencing rapid population expansion. Burgeoning growth meant increased demand and the western states feared California would establish priority rights to the water in the Colorado River.
The concern was heightened in 1922 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law of prior appropriation applied regardless of state lines. Potentially, Colorado River water flowing through Utah could be appropriated by California long before it ever left the state’s borders.
Determined to avoid the situation and avoid federal intervention into western affairs, the states started drafting a revolutionary document, the Colorado River Compact. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California and Nevada signed the compact in 1922. Although a participant, Arizona would not ratify the agreement until 1944.
The compact was an agreement on the division of water in the Colorado River. The agreement divided the states into two basins and determined how many acre-feet the areas were to receive. The upper region agreed to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to the lower basin. During a 10-year period, the upper basin was required to deliver 75 acre-feet.
The compact was supposed to give the states leeway in years with low water flows. But the hydrology measures determining available acre-feet were taken during the river’s highest years and average flow rates were going to be significantly lower.
When the upper basin states signed an agreement on dividing the region’s water, the measurement was based on percentage of flow rather than acre-feet. Utah received a 23 percent share of the water allotted to the basin.
In response to a 1935 Utah Supreme Court ruling, state legislators included ground water under the law governing usage of the non-renewable resource. Ground water was to be treated no differently than other sources and the state engineer’s office was given administrative authority. The expanded jurisdiction meant state government was the final determiner of all water rights in Utah.
From 1935 to 1947, the Utah Legislature work to facilitate water development in the state. With the passage of the metropolitan and water conservancy acts, the state created water districts. The districts were recognized as independent political entities with the ability to levy property taxes and offer bond issues to fund water projects as well as attract federal monies.
With few exceptions, water districts are managed by a board of non-elected individuals. Members are responsible to set water rates and provide policy decisions regarding present administration as well as future development in the district.
Statutes and mandates at all levels of government limit the type of policy decisions boards can make. In the majority of cases, the general public does not select the boards administering the districts.
Finally, the Utah Legislature attempted to address concerns of erosion, flooding and water quality by creating the state soil conservation committee and subsequent districts.

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