When it comes down to who gets the water - cows or people - the bovines usually come out on the short end of the watering trough.
And that has a lot of folks in the Uintah Basin worried. Worried because they have been pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars a year since 1965 into the Central Utah Project with the promise that future water developments would directly benefit the parched region.But as Wasatch Front projects near completion and the urban demand for water goes unsatiated, farmers are nervous their needs will eventually take a back seat to the needs of the Wasatch Front.
"No question there's a genuine fear that as the CUP soars in cost, the needs of the Wasatch Front will take precedence," said Melvin White, a 21-year veteran of the CUP board and a Duchesne County resident.
"It's hard to tell farmers to keep paying into the CUP when we haven't seen a thing from it. We've had fears all along that the Uintah Basin would be forgotten once the Wasatch Front got its water."
Are those fears well-grounded? Consider how the Central Utah Water Conservancy District handled a recent petition seeking 113 acre-feet of water from an 850-acre-foot irrigation block earmarked for Duchesne County.
The petition appeared to catch board members by complete surprise when it was presented in February, and one of the first questions raised was the impact the request would have on future Wasatch Front allocations.
The board, when told it had no alternative, set a public hearing for its March meeting. When no one appeared for public comment, the board promptly referred the matter for further staff review.
While the Wasatch Front may want the water, general manager Don Christiansen said he believes water allocated to the Uintah Basin will remain there.
"I just don't think it can happen (more water going to the Wasatch Front)," Chris-tiansen said. "I think we (the board) still have some decisions to make on who qualifies for the water, but I believe water earmarked for the Uintah Basin will stay there."
Similar fears are being expressed in the Sevier Basin, where almost all elements of the CUP there relate to irrigation and drainage, elements at the bottom of the CUP priority list. Significant local or state matching funds will be needed to attract federal dollars for those projects.
Rural support for CUP is especially hard when farmers are going broke because extended drought conditions have forced them to sell off their livestock and to cease watering pastures. It will take two or three years of plentiful water to make pastures productive again.
The drought has crippled an economy already weakened by an oil industry gone bust. And without water, there can be no economic development, White said.
More than 50 percent of the cattle in the Uintah Basin have already been shipped elsewhere. "There's just not enough water. It all comes down to water," White said.
By comparison, Wasatch Front agricultural users average between 4 and 5 feet of water per acre per year, White noted. In Duchesne County, farmers feel lucky to get 2.5 feet annually. With CUP developments, they hope to get about 3 feet per year.
"The past couple of years, we've had a half foot to 1.5 feet. We can't produce crops, we can't produce feed for the livestock."
And that strikes at the economic lifeblood of rural Utah. Livestock is big business in eastern Utah. Next to oil, it's the biggest.
"There can be no economic development in rural Utah of any kind without water," added Rep. Beverly Evans, R-Altamont. "Even oil and gas development are dependent upon water."
But it is agriculture that White and Evans are most concerned about. Farming and ranching represent the most stable of all rural industries. And with water drying up, they say the economic future of the Uintah Basin is at risk.
It is hoped the CUP projects will capture a lot of winter runoff from the Uinta Mountains that is currently being lost. There are plans for new reservoirs at Lake Fork, Yellowstone, White Rocks and on the Uintah River.
But who will get the water? Talk in rural coffee shops invariably turns to how the Wasatch Front has cut secret deals to claim Uin-tah Basin water.
White dismisses those rumors. But he's nervous nonetheless. "We've had our fingers crossed a long time on this. We have not run out of hope yet, but people are tired of waiting," he said.
The Uintah Basin portion of the CUP has continually changed faces over the years. Mostly, the project has gotten smaller. One large reservoir was canceled because it was economically infeasible, and another was canceled due to right-of-way problems. Dams on the Uinta and White rivers have been scaled back or canceled.
"There's a big concern that a lot of those people who made the commitment to the Uin-tah Basin years ago are no longer in legislative positions. We feel strongly there remains an obligation to the people out here," Evans said.
Especially to the Ute Indians, who are also nervous about the water plans. Years ago, the Utes allowed the CUP to divert Indian water to the Wasatch Front under an agreement that at some future point the water would be replaced by CUP water and Indians would be allowed to charge royalties on the water being purchased by the Wasatch Front.
Current plans, sponsored in Congress by Rep. Bill Orton, R-Utah, call for $125 million to be placed into a trust account, the interest from which will be used for economic development on the Ute Reservation.
Almost three-fourths of the CUP funding goes for environmental mitigation and for Indian economic development.
The CUP, using $1 million from its reserve account, is hiring engineers to begin the planning process, even though Congress has yet to appropriate the money. "We're going to go to work now and get a head start," White said. "And hope the money comes."