SALT LAKE CITY — Michelle Andersen says she remembers a time when her family could float on tubes and splash in Emigration Creek, watching with wonder as trout jumped from the waters toward the sky.
That's long a thing of the past, and this summer the creek ran dry in early July — unprecedented so early in the season.
Andersen and about 30 other canyon residents believe long-term groundwater pumping by Emigration Improvement District is drying up the creek, drawing down private wells and jeopardizing future water supplies.
District officials and their consultant, Don Barnett, say that simply isn't so. Years of drought are having an impact, and the district's wells are far away from Emigration Creek and individual homeowner's wells.
"This has not been caused by the district's wells," Barnett said during a December hearing before the Utah Division of Water Rights. "The water that the district wells are capturing is water that is discharging in the lower canyon."
Because of questions raised before State Engineer Kent Jones in formal protests, he asked that the annual, "temporary" change applications that come up for renewal each year undergo an evaluation to determine if they should become permanent.
"They are of the opinion they are not dewatering the stream," Jones said. "But every year the creek goes dry, we hear some complaints. These last couple years, we have heard strong complaints."
The canyon's 750 households get their water in a variety of ways. About 300 are served by direct connections to the district, while another 300 are on private wells. About 50 homes get their water from Salt Lake City.
The district says it has an 1872 senior "priority" water right and multiple points of diversion.
Under its "temporary" application that is now under consideration for permanent status, the district has been providing water to its customers for decades.
"There is not one more drop of water under this change application that is already approved for use in the canyon," Barnett told hearing officers.
The district, he added, has monitoring wells that show water use has actually decreased, and he noted 2018 was the hottest year on record. Even data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service shows Red Butte Creek was flowing at 14 percent of normal in May and June of this year, he added.
But canyon critics aren't buying it.
"We are in a drought. If you think the water crisis can't get worse, wait until the aquifers are drained," said Stephen Andersen, Michelle's husband.
"We are pumping irreplaceable groundwater to counter the drought. When it’s gone, the real crisis begins."
Don Clark, who also testified at the hearing, is a canyon resident who works for the Utah Geological Survey.
"Given the conditions in the canyon, I am requesting an independent evaluation of ground and surface water in the canyon by state or federal government."
The district's application, which Jones asked to review based on complaints, includes the possible addition of more wells in other locations.
Barnett said because the process is arduous, district officials say they want the option to review hydrological conditions to determine if there are more suitable locations than what was determined some 25 years ago.
Some canyon residents, however, believe that will lead to more development and more pumping that will cause irreparable harm.
The district said it is not asking for any additional water, and if the applications are denied, it will have insufficient supplies to meet demand.
Ironically, Barnett added, the district would be forced to tap into another point of diversion closer to the creek and those homeowners' wells.
"Under our old permanent change application, there are sites along the creek where we could drill," Barnett said. "But the district has intentionally tried to select sites further way from the stream."
Canyon critics don't believe the district's continued groundwater pumping is sustainable, and protests on file with Jones' office assert private water supplies are filling up with sediment, contaminants and decreasing in volume because of the district's actions.
One 89-year-old canyon resident who has lived in Emigration for 60 years says the district's actions are compromising water supplies for longtime canyon residents.7 comments on this story
"Since (the district) began operation of the Brigham Fork and Upper Freeze Creek Wells, my private well water has a foul odor and because it has a red color, we cannot drink it particular times of the year, and I have never seen the Emigration Canyon stream at lower levels than it is now" wrote Pat Sheya.
Jones will make a decision the pending applications sometime in mid-January.
"It will be a through review and evaluation of the information presented to us," he said. "We will look at the science and the criteria under the code"