Water war in Utah County

2007-03-15T23:00:00Z Water war in Utah CountyCALEB WARNOCK - Daily Herald Daily Herald
March 15, 2007 11:00 pm  • 

Thousands of new homes in Utah County could be on hold because of a war over water.

Two Utah County water developers are crying foul after being sued by Salt Lake City to keep water they own in Salt Lake County from coming to Utah County for development. The men say Salt Lake City is hoarding enough water in Utah County to build hundreds of thousands of new homes.

For the past 13 years, Evan Johnson and Jim Garside have bought and sold huge volumes of water -- thousands of acre-feet -- to developers in cities across Utah County, even helping to provide the water that made possible the creation of Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs.

With growth in Utah County skyrocketing, water is now more in demand here than ever before, and increasingly difficult and expensive to get. Johnson and Garside say they have been approached by developers with proposals to build cities from scratch in the areas of Elberta and Thistle, yet are stymied by the lack of large blocks of water.

To make water available for those potential projects, and also for large developments in Santaquin, Traverse Ridge, and other areas, Johnson said he spent several years purchasing water shares in the Murray-based Big Ditch Irrigation Company. The water totals 4,000 acre-feet, enough to build 4,000 homes.

All attempts to move or trade that water to make it available for development in Utah County have been nixed by protests filed with the State Engineer's Office by Salt Lake City Corporation and other Salt Lake County water holders, Johnson and Garside said.

Now Salt Lake City Corporation has filed what the men call an intimidation lawsuit, meant to bully them into backing down from their attempts to make Salt Lake City water available in Utah County. The suit, filed in Third District Court on March 8, says that a 1905 agreement between Salt Lake City and Big Ditch means water shares there can never be transferred away from the land in Murray.

Salt Lake City contends Johnson and Garside are unfairly trying to change a 100-year-old agreement between Salt Lake City and Big Ditch.

"This action concerns a contract we entered into with a company over 100 years ago," said Patrick Thronson, communications director for Salt Lake City. "The company is now trying to change the terms of the contract. We are taking this to court so a judge can clarify our obligations under the agreement."

Johnson and Garside say the lawsuit is just a small part of years of actions by Salt Lake City to keep Utah County water developers from purchasing Salt Lake area water and moving it to Utah County.

"They don't want us to compete with them," said Johnson, calling the move anticompetitive and monopolistic.

All told, Salt Lake City has "banked" enough water in the Utah Lake and Jordan River basins to build 400,000 new homes, Johnson and Garside said. That includes approximately 5 percent of the total water rights of Utah Lake -- enough to provide water to 40,000 new homes. The water has been banked for more than 30 years, meaning the owners don't have to prove to state officials that they are using the water. Under Utah law, owners of water shares must prove a beneficial use for their water or lose it to the state. Public water supply entities are allowed to bank water for up to 50 years under Utah law. Private water share owners are allowed to bank water for five to 10 years.

By controlling water in Utah Lake, Salt Lake-area water interests artificially create water scarcity in Utah County which in turn increases the price of water in Utah County, which in turn increases the price of new homes, Johnson and Garside said. The men claim Salt Lake City alone owns 600,000 acre-feet of water in the Utah Lake and Jordan River drainage basins, but uses less than 50,000 acre-feet of that for its residents and refuses to trade or sell any of the remaining water, even though much of it has not been used in decades. Salt Lake City officials declined to comment on these allegations, saying the statements were beyond the scope of the lawsuit filed on March 8.

All told, very little of the water in Utah Lake is available for use in Utah County because it is owned by Salt Lake City and other Salt Lake Valley and federal interests, Johnson and Garside said.

Chris Finlinson, spokeswoman for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, confirmed that the majority of water rights in Utah Lake are held by "Salt Lake County interests" that include Salt Lake City and dozens of Salt Lake-area irrigation companies. She emphasized that the water district had no comment on the lawsuit between Salt Lake City and Johnson and Garside.

It would take years to purchase 4,000 acre-feet of water in Utah Lake, and cost millions more than water in Salt Lake County, all because Salt Lake-area water users are hoarding local water, Johnson and Garside said.

As another example of Salt Lake City and other Salt Lake-area interests hoarding Utah County water, Johnson and Garside point to the January protest by more than 1,350 residents of Highland, Lehi and Alpine filed with the State Engineer's Office over a proposal to pump water from Utah County and pipe it to Salt Lake County.

Salt Lake City was a party to the proposal through its ownership in at least one irrigation company, yet resists similar efforts to trade or sell its water in Utah County, even though much of the water is not being used, the men said.

Caleb Warnock can be reached at 443-3263 or cwarnock@heraldextra.com.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.

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