A modern version of a Western water war is heating up in Cache County, pitting developers against environmentalists and some students of constitutional law.

Cache County residents opposed to establishing a new water conservancy district may take legal action to challenge the state law on the subject, they say, but only as a last recourse. Meanwhile, they are battling within the context of existing water law.The sharp skirmish over environmental and legal issues developed over efforts to set up a Cache Water Conservancy District, which would manage an allocation of 95,000 acre-feet of water from a proposed project to build dams along the Bear River. A petition to establish the district was lodged in First District Court, Logan, along with a petition opposing the district that was filed by People for Wise Water Planning.

Environmental aspects of the dispute involve questions about whether new dams should be built along the Bear River. The constitutional aspects include the issue of equal protection of the law - that is, whether supporters of a water development are entitled to favored treatment over those who oppose it.

In a hearing Tuesday before Judge Gordon Low, lawyers for both sides agreed that the first action is to study the adequacy of the anti-district forces, focusing on their weakest link - the issue of whether they obtained enough signatures from property-owners of Amalga, Cache County.

"It so happens that the town of Amalga is the city that is the big battleground, so to speak," said J. Blaine Zollinger, Logan, a lawyer for the anti-district citizens. The town has relatively few large landowners, and they include organizations that chose to stay neutral in the battle.

"It's a real tough situation for the protest petitioners," Zollinger said.

"We're going to that town and we're going to be looking carefully at all the figures and all the names . . . to see if we fail."

If so, there's no need to examine the other complex issues concerning the protest petition; it will be thrown out. But if that happens, the battle won't be over: the conflict will shift to objections that property owners filed to the petition in favor of forming the district. The objections dispute the truthfulness of parts of the pro-district petition.

"Those (objections) are supposed to be heard on an accelerated basis," Zollinger said.

Finally, if the objections fail, the anti-district people will consider a suit attacking the constitutionality of the process set up by water law for establishing new conservancy districts.

The way the Utah law was written, only 5 percent of people living in an incorporated town (and 20 percent of those outside it) can successfully petition to set up a water conservancy district, which has the power to tax residents. But a move to prevent establishment of the district would have to garner the signatures of at least 20 percent of land-owners within the limits, and 20 percent of land-owners outside the limits who have not signed the petition.

The constitutional challenge presumably would address this disparity.