It's a varied version of your typical scenario. Normally there's a consensus among people in need of something, but they find there's just no money to pay for what they require.
In this case, the people - Uintah Basin water users and irrigators - know they need water and even have the money to build water storage facilities. The catch is that they have yet to develop an operational agreement that will suit everyone involved.If their lack of consensus continues, they will forfeit $2.5 million which has already been appropriated to go toward the first phase of the Uintah Basin Replacement Project. The massive $200 million water project is part of the Central Utah Completion Act. It has been dubbed one of the last of the federally funded water projects in the West.
The Ute Indian Tribe, the U.S. Department of Interior, Central Utah Water Conservancy District, and representatives from local irrigation companies are in the process of drafting preliminary operating agreements to designate who will administer the water which would be stored in the proposed Upalco and Uintah Units. The agreements must also address how much stored water each entity Indian water users and non-Indian water users would be entitled to claim.
"I think everybody is in favor of the project, it's just being able to get a hold of operational controls and get a handle on that," commented CUWCD board member Leo Brady. He says the mood among water users in Duchesne and Uintah counties is somewhat "confusing" because of the mixed signals which have been sent.
Irrigators eagerly signed on the dotted line to commit to purchase the federal water which will be stored in the dams. Yet, there's no agreement on how that water will be disbursed. In some cases irrigators say the Department of Interior still hasn't answered their questions satisfactorily. Many of the changes which would have to be made deal with water rights, a touchy subject for both the Ute Tribe and irrigation companies.
"They want the water, but each side has to look after their own interests. Their concern is its not a great quantity of water.
They'll have to find some middle ground somewhere," said Brady.
Secondary water users on the Uintah Unit in Uintah County could see up to an additional 0.8 of an acre-foot of water, on the Upalco Unit in Duchesne County there would only be an additional 0.2 to 0.4 of an acre foot available. For many irrigators that's not enough water to make them want to turn over operations of their systems to the federal government.
Lee Wimmer, a CUWCD engineer, says in addition to operational strategies, other complex issues - such as the "unchaining" or draining of the upper lakes - are being discussed in negotiation meetings which are held on an "as needed" basis right now.
"In a broad perspective we're just trying to get close enough to work formally," Wimmer explained, adding that he believes an agreement that will satisfy the Ute Indian Tribe and non-Indian irrigators "is probably pretty close." When all signatories "agree to agree" there will be a formal, public negotiation process, but until that time, there's not a lot of communication among the interested parties.
Ron Johnston, program director for the Department of the Interior, said the "concepts" of the administration of the stored water have been discussed separately with Indian and non-Indian water users. He says the Ute Tribe has passed along a "rough draft" of their proposals to non-Indian irrigation companies and is awaiting their comments.
Johnston says that if some significant progress can't be made soon, the federal money will be lost. "If it can't come together by this summer or early fall, we have a real problem."
Moon Lake Water Users Association and Dry Gulch Irrigation, two key players, haven't yet "committed" to be a part of the project, but Keith Mortenson, president of Moon Lake Water Users Association said Moon Lake hasn't given up working on an agreement that all water users can accept. "We're still trying to cooperate and trying to make it happen . . . we're hoping that areas where we don't understand each other can go ahead and be worked out."
Johnston says if a formal agreement can't be reached sometime within the next few months there is the option of proceeding with plans for the Uintah Unit only.
"We believe the project is a better project with them (Moon Lake and Dry Gulch) in," said Johnston. "If we had our druthers they would be in but we can't control that. The federal government isn't going to force this down people's throats."