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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
A sign is posted at Lake Mary in Brighton prohibiting swimming on Thursday, July 28, 2016. Utah Quality Growth Commission held a meeting where watershed protection issues were discussed.

SALT LAKE CITY — With nearly as many visitors as all five of Utah's national parks combined, the Wasatch Front’s canyons — and their role as a watershed for a half-million people — are becoming an increasingly contentious issue.

A state committee took on the thorny topic Thursday. Up for discussion: Salt Lake City's unusual "extra-territorial" agreement with the Utah Legislature that effectively gives the city veto power in land-use decisions in the canyons — even if outside city boundaries, according to Utah Quality Growth Commission staff member John Bennett.

It's an area that has become increasingly ripe for conflict as old ways of doing things have tangled with new layers of regulation and a thirst for development.

With communities such as Sandy and Millcreek looking to annex parts of the canyons and ski resorts, Bennett said, frustration with Salt Lake City's tight control over water has grown.

"The issue is: How do we resolve this tension between people who want to recreate and protecting the watershed? Those two things are both critical, and we need to figure out a way to achieve that," he said.

Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City's public utilities department, criticized what she said were "many" inaccurate statements made by Bennett and others at the meeting.

Among them, Briefer said, was the "implication that it's a relationship of conflict" between Salt Lake City and other communities.

Another misconception is that the city does not invest money in infrastructure in the canyons, she said.

The discussion Thursday, according to Briefer, "covers a lot of ground, and it seems to be confusing different policy areas."

"I've heard some of these frustrations before, but this is a little bit hard to understand," she added.

The potential for conflict has grown as the population of the Wasatch Front has boomed.

For nearly a century, Salt Lake was the only city big enough to be granted complete watershed regulation rights. Now, three more cities have surpassed the threshold of 100,000 residents — West Valley City, Provo and West Jordan. And fast-growing communities such as Orem and Sandy are set to join the list.

Critics at the meeting accused Salt Lake City of holding a monopoly on water. And they said it was unfair to subject county residents to ordinances made by a legislative body they cannot elect.

Kyle Buxton, a Big Cottonwood Canyon landowner and irrigation company supervisor, said he and his family members have been given 38 citations over watershed issues in the past three decades. All were eventually dismissed in court, according to Buxton.

But he said the watershed regulations governing recreational activity were also too strict.

It is forbidden, for example, to bring dogs into protected watershed areas, which include City Creek, Parleys, and Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Swimming, wading and motorized boating are also prohibited, even at popular hiking spots like Lake Mary in Big Cottonwood. Violations constitute a class B misdemeanor.

"Two-thirds of Salt Lake City's water comes out of the Jordanelle and Deer Creek reservoirs," Buxton said. "They have a water park up there. They have Jet Skis, water skis, swimming, whatever you want. But yet if you walk up the canyon, you get a ticket. … It's ridiculous."

Evan Johnson, who owns a ski-in/ski-out lot near Cecret Lake, claimed that Salt Lake City cut his access to water and devalued his property.

"The watershed regulation is abused and we're bullied," Johnson said. "… My property is inside four water districts, and I can't get a drop of water. I can't get any water because Salt Lake City told them not to service me."

The committee, which has no regulatory power, adjourned without deciding on a recommendation but agreed to continue discussing the issue at future meetings.

Briefer cautioned against one of the recommendations the committee considered: eliminating Salt Lake City's extra-territorial jurisdiction entirely and turn over water management authority to counties.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen this recommendation,” said Briefer, who added that she has concerns about counties' ability to manage critical water resources. Still, she added, Salt Lake City's public utilities department is “happy to listen.”

“We have a lot of collaborative relationships in our watershed management," Briefer said. "To me, that’s the bottom line."

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DaphneChen_