SALT LAKE CITY — Each file is marked by a jumble of numbers that mean little to the untrained eye.
They are numbers like 57-3743 or 57-8672, written on 160,000 separate files kept in a nondescript room of a state agency's offices in Salt Lake City.
Some of the numbers tell stories that began as far back as Utah's statehood and may have made millions for their owners. They may have kept a family farming for generations, or today, they may mean the difference between a city continuing to grow or closing the gates on more development.
The numbers represent water rights — and the files hold paperwork describing their location, the volume of water and the name of the owner on record.
Many of the files are outdated, which means there could be a big difference between what is in the file — paper water — and the actual water that exists or is available — wet water.
Utah officials say the problem is staggering.
"We are growing so much as a state and there is so much demand for water, it is critical we know where these existing uses are and protect them," said Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. "And there is really no new water to be had."
One of the divisions in Styler's department is in a long, tedious process of verifying these water rights and making a formal determination about the volume of water and whether it is being put to "beneficial" use.
Of the 15 major watershed areas in Utah, just two of them have been researched and adjudicated, which means that the investigation and documentation work was carried out and a judge then issued a decree.
Those areas, the Weber and the Sevier rivers, were started in 1911. The state engineer's office finished them in the 1920s and 1930s, and the decrees were issued in the late 1930s.
The office is nearing completion on the Bear and Virgin river areas, but Styler said given his current staffing levels, it would take 150 years just to get the Utah and Salt Lake county areas completed.
"Obviously, that's not acceptable," he said, adding that the rights, once verified, will help tell the story of the water that exists in the nation's second driest state.
Why should Utahns care? Because the nature of water rights is that there are far more rights than the water that actually exists, so the task is to determine what is real and what is not.
"Your paper water right may look very big and supply every thing you are asking, but the wet water, in reality, can be very different," Kent Jones, the state engineer over water rights, said.
The Colorado River, for example, holds 1.4 million acre-feet of water for Utah to put to use. There are applications approved for more than 2 million acre-feet, and about one half of that is currently in use. Jones said the imbalance has yet to be a problem because the water has not been developed — but the struggle will come with time, and those holding "junior" rights will go wanting.
Utah's population is projected to double by 2050, bringing with it the promise of costly conflict if water issues are not resolved.
"The ultimate goal is to bring some clarity to our water budget," said Chris York, an adjudication specialist with the Utah Division of Water Rights.
"Water is the most precious resource we have. To have any doubt over how it is being used or where it is being used — I can't think of anything more critical to the future of our state."
A storied history
Many of these rights are as old as Utah. They have been hard-fought in a court of law, handed down from parent to child, secured via handshake, bought, gambled away or even taken at gunpoint in the early days.
In arid Utah, owning a water right is a way to own one little corner of the world and perhaps the difference of having land to make a living or land left untamed.
The rights vary as to volume. One right could mean thousands upon thousands of acre-feet of water that is sought after for the purpose of development. Or, that right could only be good for water that flows for 12 days once every 12 to 20 years.
Since Mormon pioneers first settled in the Salt Lake Valley and began diverting water from City Creek for crops, people have lain official and not so official claims to water in Utah.
One of the earliest decisions of the territorial Legislature, in fact, was to adopt a law that governed the appropriation of water — a doctrine reaffirmed in 1903 that continues to hold true today.
Both York and Josh Zimmerman, another state adjudication specialist, are water detectives of sorts, sluicing through subdivisions, vacant lots or rows of crops to verify what they have on paper against the reality of what's happening on the ground.
"We try to get an idea of what we might run into, but every water right is a bit different, with its own idiosyncracies and its own details," Zimmerman said.
On a chilly November morning, the pair work the Vineyard area of Utah County. They stop their truck in front of a home with an address that indicates that, at some point, a well was there.
They use sophisticated mapping technology that they pull up on a tablet displaying a particular water body's points of diversion highlighted with a circle. The truck is littered with paper files, and they thumb through those, too.
At this location, the file shows it was a well that was drilled in 1917 and it once served 20 acres. It's likely that the well is now in the backyard of a home built in the early 1990s.
"We've seen a lot of change in the Orem area in the last 30 to 50 years," York said.
A well that once supplied water for fields is now part of this subdivision. Just as decades have transformed how the land is used, time has also delivered uncertainty over the water right, including how, where and if the water is being used.
"We just work on these as we get funding from the Legislature," said Boyd Clayton, the deputy state water engineer, describing the detailed adjudication process. "In the meantime, the problem continues to get more complicated as the land divides and people change."
York and Zimmerman are working an area of the Utah Lake/Jordan River drainage that is about 36 square miles with a goal to get the adjudications done within a three-year window.
Earlier this fall, Styler briefed Gov. Gary Herbert on the issue, noting that the work in the entire area could get done in a decade with about $14 million in additional funding per year.
"But we know we are never going to get $14 million a year every year for 10 years and we are not going to get two to three times the staffing," he said. "Nobody expects that."
Herbert said, however, that he has made the effort a priority, given the critical nature of the work in the water resources arena.
In his budget recommendations released last week, Herbert said he wants an extra $438,000 to accelerate the process in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
"People are fighting over water; that is the reason for the adjudication money. We are putting in what we think is available moneys," Herbert said. "This will be a step in the right direction, and if it makes a dent in the problem, that will be good. If we don't make a big enough dent, we will evaluate next year."
Styler said the inventory will ultimately safeguard users.
"Adjudication is an effort to protect all of the current water rights that are in beneficial use," Styler said. "What it does is it enumerates them and defines all the water rights that are being used. It is important to have that kind of base line so that everyone who is using water is protected."
Styler said the work done thus far in the Utah Lake/Jordan River drainage revealed one area in which 70 percent of the rights on file were no longer in use.
"It shows in a metropolitan area how out of date those water rights can be."
Jones, the state engineer, said it's been a struggle to educate the public and lawmakers about the critical nature of the work. Water rights is an intimidating, but important topic, he said.
"Until people realize how important it is to identify the amounts of water we have available for use in the state, I don't see us getting that kind of funding."
In Utah, the state's groundwater is managed like surface water — a management approach not necessarily adopted by other states.
An unprecedented drought in California has led to overpumping of groundwater, causing the ground to sink by as much as 1 foot in some places and leading to a law passed earlier this year in which the state is overseeing groundwater resources for the first time.
Active groundwater management plans exist in Utah due to overpumping, and some basins are closed altogether to any new appropriations.
The Salt Lake Valley, for example, is overappropriated by about four times as much as what is annually replenished through runoff and precipitation.
"We are way over-allocated, so the Salt Lake groundwater basin has been shut down for years," Clayton said.
The water is not being developed and there has been no ground subsidence or sinking yet, added Jones, but he cautioned, "The potential is ugly."
The field work that York and Zimmerman are doing — another management tool for water resources — goes into a book. This "proposed determination" is then made available for public review for 90 days before it goes to a judge.
During that time period, a water right holder may object to the determination if it decreases the volume of water associated with the right or recommends disallowing the right altogether because the water is no longer being put to beneficial use.
If there is disagreement over a particular water right, it goes to court.
"We put a lot of value in determining if these rights exist or don't exist," Zimmerman said. "It is why it requires the sleuthing that we do in the field to determine what is actually happening."
About 550 of these cases are tied up in the court system, and some "books" that have been waiting 30 years for an official decree, so Zimmerman said the goal is to arrive at the most accurate assessment possible.
Jones said there have been discussions about streamlining the process — and a newly formed committee is studying ways to do just that — but nothing is ever simple, or quick, when it comes to water.
"We are struggling with this right now and realize there needs to be a change and we need to be able to do this more quickly than we have been doing, but everybody is waving their due process flag and saying don't take away my rights. It has to be fair," Jones said. "And that takes time."
The work is exacting because the implications are often far-reaching. They have been a source of development controversy in Albion Basin and are central to a planned nuclear power plant in Utah.
Those who hold the water know they have an obligation to put it to good use or risk losing it based on Utah law.
So, when a couple of government workers show up and start asking questions of a property owner, it can be unsettling for some, York said.
"We have the right of trespass," Jones stressed, meaning the office does not need permission to enter property, "but we also have the right to get shot."
More often than not, the field work is an interesting exchange that unravels time and shows the interplay of water with people — an interaction that can stretch into decades or even a century or more.
York said some people find out that the well on their property helped their great-great grandfather grow corn and they want a copy of the paperwork for a family history.
In other encounters, it is the state workers who learn the intricacies of the water use.
"Some people may not know what's on their property," Zimmerman said, adding that's not the case when it comes to more rural users.
"You will find water rights that have been in the same family since 1870 and you see a different side to how people value their water and want to protect it," Zimmerman said.
"They are more than happy to show us what the water has done over the years. They'll walk the ditch with you and show you the pump system. We show up, knock on the door and try to find out in a couple of hours what they have been farming with for generations."