The state can't force the relinquishment of the water rights if the owner — either an individual or an irrigation company — can prove it is being put to beneficial use.
"You see farmland disappearing and homes going up, but the water is still used on the land," said Kent Jones, the state engineer over water rights.
Jones added that there may not be as many farms being served by the canals, but canal operators have an obligation to keep the water flowing to serve the downstream users.
"Canal companies are struggling because they still have spots of farmland, and they need to make sure there is enough water in the canal to get to the end of the line," he said.
If a group of users bump off the system, the water has to keep flowing to those downstream users who own shares.
Ultimately, it is the irrigation company that owns the water rights and directs what happens to it.
Frankel said the state ought to purchase that "surplus" water as a source for future water supplies, an idea Jones said is a good one.
"There is some sense to that, in getting that water tied up so we could use it," he said. "It is a wise thing to think that there is some excess water there that we could tie into and be able to use elsewhere."
Strong, too, said acquiring the water is a good idea, but he wondered if it should be the state going after it or the actual users, such as cities or water districts.
"(The Utah Rivers Council) is beating me up all the time for what the state does that the communities should be doing themselves," he said.
He pointed to the proactive stance taken by the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which is a wholesale water supplier for municipal and agricultural customers in Weber, Davis and Summit counties.
"They have a standing offer for share of stocks in the irrigation companies in their area," Strong said.
Jones said there is water out there — as Frankel contends — that could be put to the use for the public's benefit, but it is an issue of knowing who owns it and how it has been used.
"It is a dynamic situation that has to do with who owns the water and how much can be taken from where," he said.
Jones said state water officials pushed a plan before the Utah Legislature several years ago to go out and survey what water rights ought to be given the urbanization of farmland, but other initiatives took priority.
As it is, his office has 700 cases pending on appeal before the courts in which he is seeking to limit someone's water right or force them to forfeit it because the water is not being put to beneficial use.
"State law is pretty specific: You use it or lose it, and it becomes subject to being challenged in court," Jones said.
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