In a desert state like Utah, a drop of water can be worth more than gold.
In Tooele Valley, where no new claims for water can be approved, water rights can determine the fate of a new development or provide for the preservation of Tooele County’s dwindling agricultural land.
The state engineer closed Tooele Valley to all new water appropriations in 1996. Since then, the only way to get water rights in the valley is to obtain existing rights. Those rights may be bought, sold or transferred.
The state legislature is currently considering several bills that affect how water rights can be changed. Substitute Senate Bill 109, sponsored by Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, clarifies who may file a request for a change of water rights. The bill also allows the state engineer to take the amount of water that is being used for a beneficial purpose into consideration during a change application.
Recent Utah State Supreme Court decisions have clouded these issues and SSB 109 clarifies them so the state engineer can continue to process change applications, according to Okerlund.
SSB 109 also establishes a separate process for requests for water right changes by municipalities. It also includes the ability to involve the Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman in a dispute over a change application filed by a city.
The Utah Farm Bureau Federation opposes SSB 109. “The bill sets up two classes of water users, municipalities and everybody else,” said Leland Hogan, president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation and a Tooele County rancher. “It gives municipalities a separate process instead of treating them equally.”
SSB 109 passed the Senate last week and is waiting for consideration in the House.
Another piece of legislation that Hogan is closely watching is House Joint Resolution 14, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, RWest Jordan.
The non-binding resolution calls on state, county and local governments to protect and defend jurisdiction over the state’s water resources.
The state engineer maintains control over water by issuing permits for its use. Each permit, or water right, specifies the source of the water, where it is to be used, and what it can be used for.
HJR 14 maintains that the actions of the federal government, primarily the U.S Forest Service, has undermined the state’s jurisdiction over water resources.
The forest service has sought to restrict timber harvest and grazing permits as a way to gain control over Utah’s water, according to the resolution. One of these incidents happened in Tooele County in the spring of 2012, according to Hogan.
“Forest service officials tried to coerce livestock ranchers in Vernon to sign change applications on their private livestock water rights to keep their permits for grazing on forest service land,” said Hogan.
The resolution reaffirms that Utah maintains its right to own and control water in the state, including water originating on public lands.
“It is about control,” added Hogan. “If you have the water rights you can control the land.”
HJR 14 has been assigned to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment committee.