A swarm of national environmentalist groups and several congressmen have swarmed the Bureau of Reclamation since it announced Tuesday that flows on the Provo River could be cut in half next week.
Water officials say drought conditions, short water supplies and concern that Deer Creek Reservoir might not fill next spring prefaced the plan to reduce river flows.Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, has been meeting with water users and representatives of sportsmen's groups since Wednesday to try and head off what he calls the "unfolding melodrama."
The melodrama has followed the announcement from the bureau that it planned to rewrite a "categorical exclusion" to National Environmental Policy Act requirements for the Central Utah Project - a precursor to the bureau's cutting releases from Deer Creek Dam and dropping the river flow from 100 cubic feet per second to 50 cfs as early as 5 p.m. Monday.
Sportsmen and state wildlife officials say cutting the flows would damage the blue-ribbon trout fishery along a six-mile stretch of the river in Provo Canyon. How much a flow reduction would damage the fishery is the subject of a state report due for release Dec. 1.
Written responses to the bureau's announcement started Thursday when Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power Resources, requested Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner C. Dale Duvall to give the subcommittee and Owens 48-hours notice before altering river flows. Miller also requested that Duvall direct the bureau's regional director to suspend work on the revision to the categorical exclusion "and any other documents that might implement the proposed decision to reduce Provo River flows."
Miller had letters hand-delivered on Friday to Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel and Environmental Protection Agency Lee M. Thomas. In the letter to Thomas, Miller said the bureau's program for the CUP is "in serious violation" of environmental policy act requirements.
A separate letter to Duvall signed by the National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, American Rivers and Grand Canyon Trust also asserted the categorical exclusion could not be altered and still satisfy NEPA requirements.
"The Provo River is one of the most heavily fished trout streams in Utah. The bureau must not sanction the casual destruction of this productive trout fishery," reads the letter from the national environmental groups.
The bureau notified Owens' office Friday it would not decrease river flows without first giving a 48-hour notice.
Owens called a Friday afternoon meeting he held with water developers, bureau officials and two attorneys for sportsmen's groups "extremely successful."
Kenley Brunsdale, chairman of the Utah Roundtable of Sportsmen and Conservationists, said he has personally contacted six irrigation companies that control water on the upper Provo River. Some of the water owners have indicated they would make short-term water sales if the price was right.
Brunsdale said he has potentially found enough water to add 17 cfs to the river flows.
In making a short-term purchase, the bureau would be buying mostly irrigation water and paying farmers for resulting crop losses.
"I'm sure some of those farmers would rather sit at home in their rocking chairs than go out and work their fingers to the bone," said Jeffrey Appel, also representing the sportsmen. "Money always talks."
Owens said he was concerned news that federal money was being used to buy the water would drive the offering price up.
An offering price for the water has not been determined but needs to be soon so a firm offer can be made, Brunsdale said.
Salt Lake City is already keeping 30 cfs of its Deer Creek water in the river to help supplement fish flows rather than storing the water behind the dam and using wells through the winter.