Today, the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District is hosting a water advisory committee meeting, made up of a cross section of community members from all backgrounds and in all professions. The purpose of the committee is to educate the committee as to some of the nuances of our valley’s unique water situation and to create community-led solutions to our overuse of the water.
I do not know why I was chosen to serve on the committee, but I am happy to serve and contribute to solutions to our problems. My grandfather Joe Melling loved everything to do with water rights and much of that rubbed off on me as I went through law school and entered law practice. Many of our discussions in his final years were about water rights as I sought his advice on different client matters.
When I was looking for a way to graduate from law school a semester early, I decided to undertake an independent research project for credit during the summer. I could choose any topic I wanted, so I chose water law as a way to learn more about the world that my grandfather lived in. I specifically chose to write about the then-relevant Snake Valley water proposals between Nevada and Utah and their legal implications if they ever made it to court.
While writing this paper, I was able to learn many of the basic principals governing water rights and their use. I also learned about the factors governing interstate water disputes and compacts.
While the paper now seems elementary, the research and discussions I had in preparing it shaped my views on water and many other water issues facing our valley.
At the risk of over-generalizing my views on some of our recent hot-button issues, that paper’s research led me to understand that:
1) the Lake Powell Pipeline would have been a disastrous and volatile project for our valley’s water supply;
2) our ‘West Desert’ water supplies are perhaps our most cost-effective, ecologically-sustainable, and legally-sound source of new water for our valley; and
3) the leaders of the city, county, and private sector and their input over the next 1-2 years are going to be the main factor in determining whether our valley is put under a traditional groundwater management plan by the State Engineer’s office, or instead allowed to create its own conservation systems under the supervision of the State Engineer’s office.
Many residents of our basin do not realize that the State Engineer’s office is bound to restrict overuse of water. A basin is deemed to overuse its water when more water is being pumped or consumed than is being replaced into the aquifer through runoff, rainfall, and recharge projects. In order to restrict overuse of water in a given basin, the State Engineer’s office implements a groundwater management plan to cut off rights of individuals and entities based on the origination date of the water right.
In a traditional groundwater management plan setting, my understanding is that roughly 80% of Cedar City’s rights would be barred from use by the State Engineer’s office based on the City’s water right priority dates. Unless the City has a secret plan to deal with that problem (likely implemented over a 25-50 year period), Cedar City will have to acquire older rights on the open market if it wants to continue providing water to its residents.
Under that groundwater management plan, we will see higher water bills and restrictions on development. When I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, many of our neighborhood water bills would reach $200-$400 in summer months because it was only at that threshold that many middle-class families will change their water use habits to ensure municipal compliance with state water use limits. I pray Cedar City’s water bills never reach those rates due to poor City planning and forced compliance with a groundwater management plan.
This is not a problem that can be simply solved. I have heard the following ‘simple’ solutions and have provided some equally simple rebuttals, any of which could be exhaustive discussions on their own:
- Build a dam up coal creek to store water;
- High silt content, even in light winter runoff, would require extensive silt removal behind the dam every season. The structure on coal creek near Rusty’s, for example, used to be a dam for a reservoir and filled completely with silt in a couple short years.
- Ban lawns;
- While municipal water waste on over-watered lawns is a major problem on its own, it is a small drop in the bucket when compared to our overage. Further, lawns and other greenery provide a cooling effect on soils and structures in the heat of the summer and have many economic and ecological benefits when planned and maintained properly.
- Buy-up all the farm rights since farms use 75% of our water;
- Private property rights aside, at this altitude, alfalfa and other crops have a higher protein content than at other elevations. Our crops are then sold at a premium in international markets and helps diversify our local economy. As long as those farms are profitable and willing to farm instead of selling water rights, they should be allowed to do so.
- Subsidize efficient watering techniques;
- While conservation is the goal, subsidies are a temporary solution and stop working when funding dries up.
As we look at the water issue in our valley, the city needs to be part of that discussion before our option to discuss is taken from us. At this time, the Cedar City Council needs visionary and creative voices to add to the water discussion. As part of this discussion, I plan to bring innovative solutions to the table to allow Cedar City to determine its own destiny before another destiny is forced upon us.