SALT LAKE CITY — It happened to Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, a professional title examiner and a doctor.
Salt Lake City, which owns the water serving the town of Alta — and also owns water delivered in ski resorts and canyon communities — has multiple "surplus" water contracts outside its geographic boundaries that are under scrutiny by state lawmakers.
Those contracts, revocable by Salt Lake City at any time, allow it to nix development in Little Cottonwood Canyon and elsewhere by controlling who gets water and who does not.
The surface water contracts, which will be discussed Tuesday by members of the state Water Development Commission, have been at the center of protracted fights over the decades, unwinding in multiple courts in lawsuits brought by disgruntled property owners.
"I don't have a dog in the fight up in that area, but I do have an interest in making sure we have good water policy in the state of Utah," said Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and the lawmaker who is bringing the issue before the commission.
"It seems like they are using water as a weapon to control what happens."
Young sought to have a cabin built for his father on a lot the family owns near Cecret Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Salt Lake City said no.
Others have sued over the development issue — one case over Alta's 1976 surplus contract reached the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals — but judges landed on the side of the iron-clad contracts.
"They hold all the cards," Alta Town Manager John Guldner said, quoting the words from a federal judge's ruling. "The judge was right. They are the smartest municipality on this planet because in the late 1880s and early 1890s, they started buying up water rights. They knew. They are flat and they are growing and you can't grow without water."
Alta has a surplus water contract with Salt Lake City because it controls the water rights to a 1,600-feet underground pool of water revealed through silver mining. The water is pumped out and Alta gets 265,000 gallons of water per day for its town boundaries, physically defined in the contract established 41 years ago.
Although people have since bought lots outside those boundaries, Alta has been unable to provide them with water or sewer. The county health department also requires that a property owner prove they have access to 400 gallons of water per day to obtain a building permit.
Critics accuse Salt Lake City of being a water monopoly without oversight that has the ability to devalue land based on the availability of water.
Laura Briefer, the director of the Salt Lake City Division of Public Utilities, said it is tasked with protecting the watershed. She added that the state constitution does not allow the city to sell or lease its water rights, but it can enter into surplus water contracts.
Boyd Clayton, Utah's deputy director of water rights, said crafters of Utah's constitution likely feared city leaders might be conned out of their water, so they wrote the prohibition on any municipal sale or lease of water rights or water "works" into the state's founding document.
Briefer defended the city's position.
"Salt Lake City, with much foresight and planning over the decades, acquired the majority of those water rights in the canyons," she said.
In 1991, the city passed an ordinance limiting the expansion of those contracts.
"It was in large part to protect those watersheds from potential pollution and to not urbanize them," she said. "(Salt Lake City) and the public rely on that water supply for public health and economic growth. One of the biggest ways to undermine that is to not take care of those source waters."
But Noel, who has spent more than two decades in the water business and manages the Kane County Water Conservancy District, said he has questions over how Salt Lake City can term water "surplus" yet have it contractually obligated.
"What happens in the future if you need that water yet you have all this infrastructure built up around it?" Noel said.
Guldner said he doesn't believe Salt Lake City would ever revoke its surplus water contract with the town, but it could.
"They could say we're done, no more, and then we'd have 30 days to find another source."
Briefer, too, said it is a baseless fear that the city would yank surplus water contracts that go to towns like Alta, ski resorts or Park City.
But Noel wonders if all that territorial control for Salt Lake City makes good water policy and what that control does to property values that may hang in the balance given the lack of a permanent water supply.
"Water is king in Utah," he said.
The issue of the city's surplus water contracts and its grant of "extraterritorial jurisdictional" from the state was visited by the Quality Growth Commission earlier this year. A draft document on that probe notes that places like Park City and other areas in Wasatch County buy some water from Salt Lake City in surface water contracts that generate millions of dollars — possibly as much as $25 million.
In June, that group recommended to the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands that a panel of experts in water rights, water law and property rights be assembled to delve into extrajursidictional issues and potential conflicts.5 comments on this story
State law grants general authority for cities to control land within 300 feet of a stream if it owns water rights and a larger area at the point of diversion to control and prevent pollution. Cities like Salt Lake City — which have a first-class status because they have 100,000 or more people — have the authority to regulate an entire watershed, ridgeline to ridgeline.
In his letter to the public lands commission, Dave Mansell, the head of the Quality Growth Commission, cited the potential for conflicts as more cities reach that first-class status. He also said lawmakers ought to consider financial solutions to alleviate conflicts to property owners whose development plans were stopped by watershed restrictions.
That issue will be discussed Thursday at the public lands commission meeting.