The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation could soon find itself in court if it proceeds next week with a plan to cut flows from Deer Creek Reservoir to Provo River in order to conserve water.
Utah County commissioners, upset that they weren't notified of the decision, plan to file a protest with Robert Morgan, state engineer for the Division of Water Rights.On Friday, commissioners will hold a special meeting with municipal leaders, water groups and local legislators to discuss further action that may be taken, including the possible filing of a court injunction. The meeting will be at 2 p.m. in the county building, and all concerned citizens are invited.
On Monday, Provo River flows from Deer Creek are scheduled to be dropped below 100 cubic feet per second, the level previously supported by the BOR and required by a provision of the National Environmental Policy Act. The remaining flows likely will be between 30 cfs and 60 cfs, which represent the demands from downstream water users as well as natural sources feeding the river below Deer Creek Dam.
Regardless of the remaining flows, the low river could mean the end of six miles of blue ribbon trout fishery between the Deer Creek and the Olmstead Diversion Dam.
"We cannot allow them to dry up the Provo River," Commission Chairman Malcolm Beck said. "I just don't think they're doing this appropriately. It's time we stood up to them."
Commissioner Brent Morris was angry that the county was not notified of the Tuesday meeting in Salt Lake between anglers and water officials in which the decision to reduce flows was announced.
"Unless we start asserting ourselves, we really will be subservient to Salt Lake County," he said. "They're excluding us from the decision-making process. That is unacceptable. I think that should be a concern to everyone in Utah County."
Commissioners are also angry that the Central Utah Water Conservancy District has applied for rights to 20,000 acre-feet of Utah Lake water for storage in Deer Creek Reservoir. The transfer could cause a further restriction of flow into Provo River because the 20,000 acre-feet would be retained in the reservoir rather than allowed to flow downstream to Utah Lake.
"If they started doing that, pretty soon all we would have is a mud pond down there," Beck said. "They can have rights to water above compromise, but not below compromise."
The move also drew fire from Springville Mayor Kenneth Creer. "Utah County is being raped by Salt Lake County," Creer told the City Council, which approved a protest Tuesday night.
In September, Wayne Hillier, Provo Metropolitan Water District manager, warned the Utah County Water Advisory Board that the Central Utah Water Conservancy District eventually would try to purchase water from Utah Lake and transfer it to Deer Creek Reservoir or the Jordanelle Reservoir through restriction of Provo River flow.
Hillier said the rights in question are strictly surplus rights that cannot be exercised when Utah Lake is below compromise.
"What is happening here doesn't make sense unless someone has a private agenda," Morris said. "It's happened so rapidly it's upsetting."
Charlie Thompson, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources regional fisheries manager, said the BOR decision makes little sense because results of a recent study on how low Provo River flows affect trout habitat are still a month away. Earlier this month, flows were cut to 60 cfs while biologists gathered data to help them determine whether lower flows would damage trout fishery.
"It seems obvious to me that the decision had nothing to do with the study. It seems politically based," Thompson said. "My impression at the meeting was that the study wasn't going to have that much of an influence."
The study's preliminary results revealed that some fish habitat would be destroyed if flows were reduced to 60 cfs, he said. Thompson predicted that dropping the river below that level could claim up to half the river's fish habitat and kill off many fish as a result. He said studies will continue this fall and next spring to examine damage to spawning areas and fish population.
"It's still possible we will find adequate flows to keep water up to an adequate level," he said.
Anglers have asked water officials to purchase agricultural water to maintain the river's flow, and negotiations are scheduled Monday with water users. Division of Wildlife Resources officials said the division would help finance water purchases.
Rather than reduce flow, water officials should get serious about promoting conservation, said Steve Schmidt, president of the Stone Fly Society fishing club.
"I'm infuriated. Sportsmen are very upset," he said. "The Provo River should not be the sole recipient of the crisis. Are we willing to let it go by the wayside and dry up? It's, `let's dry up the river' and nothing else. This is the standpoint of the river users."
If Utah is really experiencing a drought, he said, "The people of the state should look at water usage and start conserving water now. If it is a critical year water-wise, you begin to manage better and not pump the water out to the desert."
Jeff Appel, attorney for sportsmen who fish the Provo River, questioned the legality of the BOR decision and said legal action may be taken to stop flow reductions.
`We think water is available to purchase or could be saved through conservation," he said. "We think it is their job to find it in cooperation with other water users who have benefited from the 20,000-acre-feet exchange (that transferred water from Strawberry Reservoir to Utah Lake for use by the Salt Lake Water Conservancy District).
"It would seem prudent to wait for release of the results of the study the BOR commissioned from the Division of Wildlife Resources. Until then, they are taking a shot in the dark without knowing really what the adequate water level is. We will take legal action if necessary."