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As land grows homes instead of crops, what happens to the agricultural water?

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 21 2013 5:50 p.m. MDT

One of thousands of sprinkler heads waters trees at McMullin Orchards in Payson Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Rivers Council said state water managers are ignoring a cheap source of extra water — former farmland water — and instead are going after expensive projects that will cost billions.

Farms have all but disappeared from the Salt Lake Valley, but the state Division of Water Resources is pursuing the Bear River Development project so the valley can get 50,000 acre-feet of water, said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

The same will be true in Washington County, where the Lake Powell Pipeline proposal has drawn controversy, he said.

"You can't tell me that Washington County will be able to do what Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties have not — hang on to its farms," Frankel said.

The issue is driving the group's renewed call for an audit of the state Division of Water Resources.

"What is disconcerting to us is to have these multibillion-dollar projects proposed when there are other alternatives," Frankel said. "The issue is one of economics, and there is an alternative under our nose that the agency is intentionally ignoring."

Dennis Strong, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said Frankel is wrong.

"I would say that is clearly not true," he said. "We are not ignoring it."

Strong said water conservation and converting that agricultural water to municipal use is why the Bear River Development project would not have to come online at the earliest until 2035 or 2040.

"That is what helps to get us there," he said. "We estimate 10 percent of our total need between now and 2060 will be met by those ag conversions."

The Bear River project proposes to divert and pipe 220,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear River. Box Elder and Cache counties would get 120,000 acre-feet of water to split, while 100,000 acre-feet would be split among Davis, Weber and Salt Lake counties.

But Frankel said that project — along with the controversial proposal for the Lake Powell Pipeline — are unnecessary, given the agricultural water that is out there.

"The Division of Water Resources needs a thorough audit to explain why the agency is ignoring this cheaper water source — farm water conversion — in favor of soaking taxpayers for billions," he said.

Frankel said there are scores of canals flowing through the Salt Lake Valley that used to support irrigation, but only a smattering of farmland is left.

Records from the Salt Lake County Assessor's Office show that in 1995 there were 118,707 acres of productive agricultural land used for either farming or grazing of some sort. By June of this year, that number had dropped to 78,566 acres of agricultural land that qualifies for the county tax exemption.

The assessor's office said that of that land, only 4,506 acres are irrigated farmland, while what remains supports "dry" crops such as wheat.

"When irrigated farmland is developed, a surplus of water is created because roads, parking lots, sidewalks, rooftops and strip malls are not irrigated," Frankel said.

Some of that water is converted, but how it happens varies, Strong said.

Some cities, particularly along the Wasatch Front, require developers to bring the water with them when they put in subdivisions. That water may be shares from the irrigation companies that once served that area for farms, while other water may come with actual water rights that are transferred to the city, he said.

Some of that water stays with the homes, used as secondary water to grow gardens and lawns.

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.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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