By AMY JOI O’DONOGHUE, Deseret News
BEAVER COUNTY, Utah (AP) — Mark Wintch relies on a source to manage his ranching and farming operation in a remote section of Beaver County, Utah, in a place called Wah Wah Valley.
The spring powers his hydroelectric plant which provides power to his home and irrigation pivots on land his great-grandfather owned in the late 1800s.
“We have shed blood, sweat and tears for over 100 years to build something here,” he says.
It’s a dry country, with this particular strip of Utah locked in extreme or severe drought.
“We’re ground zero for the drought,” Wintch told the Deseret News. “Water is gold. It was the real gold rush of the West – water, in my opinion.
Wintch fears his family legacy will dry up if a groundwater pumping project gains federal approval.
“I am extremely worried,” he said. “Spring is everything to me.”
Neighboring Iron County in southwestern Utah is also extremely concerned, hoping to address a severe water shortage for its residents as it plots a conflict in the Western Desert by tackling to water in Beaver County, where he obtained water rights from the State of Utah Engineer. .
“Our water situation is pretty dire,” said Brent Hunter, district chairman of the Central Iron County Water Conservancy, adding that if the district doesn’t get more water, virtually every acre of farmland will dry up. in the future.
Like Wintch, Hunter is growing alfalfa on land increasingly threatened by drought, sparking a new intensity of water conflict in the West.
The district operates with an annual water supply deficit of 7,000 acre-feet, and extremely arid conditions make the situation worse.
He wants to tap groundwater supplies from 10 producing wells on federally managed land — in Beaver County’s Pine Valley — which sits just over the hill from Wintch’s house. At some point, the district may also move into Millard County to draw water there.
“You’re just not going to file a resource case from a neighboring county,” complained Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney. “You can have all the water rights in the world, but if the resource isn’t there, it isn’t there.”
AN “EXISTENTIAL” CRISIS IN THE WEST
A groundwater management plan instituted by the state of Utah will further restrict Iron County’s ability to supply water and, over 50 years, will reduce two-thirds of water rights that have been appropriated in the district, Hunter said.
Overpumping of an aquifer in Cedar Valley has spurred reductions, which sets up this fight.
“I think it’s the existential crisis for communities in the Western Desert because you have a community that wants to continue their behavior without any consequences and they’re asking another community to bear those consequences,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director. of the Great Basin. Water Network, an advocacy group working to protect water and other natural resources in the region.
The Pine Valley water project, which is in the early stages of Bureau of Land Management review and public comment, involves 66 miles (106 kilometers) of proposed pipeline and a 35-megawatt solar field on 0.3 square miles (0.8 square kilometers) of land to provide power for pumping. Overall, Iron County owns a square mile (2.6 square kilometers) that would support five more wells and is seeking right-of-way on federal lands.
“What makes this rather exciting is the renewable energy component to pump this water to Cedar Valley. It’s a remote basin, in a remote valley and ecologically that makes sense,” said District Manager Paul Monroe.
But district critics say the project is proceeding when it hasn’t done enough in the area of conservation, such as turf replacement programs or other water-saving measures.
Monroe countered that “turf” is not a big factor in the district’s water use, but said he was working to expand that program. He added that the district had worked with farmers and ranchers to reduce water use by 20% and had installed seven recharge ponds to divert water so it does not turn into a dry lake bed and can instead be used in fields and farms. It partnered with Utah State University and Southern Utah University to develop greater efficiency through an agricultural optimization grant.
Steve Erickson of the Great Basin Water Resource Network compared the project to a “water intake,” much like the years-long battle in Utah many of these counties and border counties in Nevada fought for a draft groundwater pumping plan in Snake Valley, which straddles the two states.
“We’re going to fight them tooth and nail, just like we did in the Las Vegas water intake,” Erickson said. “They may hold the state engineer’s water rights, but we argue the groundwater is already being used.”
The network pointed out that pumping in the Pine and Wah Wah Valleys will potentially impact an interconnected watershed the size of Vermont and not only affect a relatively shallow aquifer system in Utah, but will also seep into the neighboring Nevada and will affect flows to the Great Salt Lake. .
Along with Snake Valley, disputes and legal challenges over the Southern Utah Nevada Water Authority’s planned groundwater pumping project have asserted that what happens in a basin with respect to water withdrawals does not stay in that basin. pelvis – it has tremendous ripple effects.
“I find it very appalling that the citizens of Cedar City and surrounding areas are trying to save their valley by raping other valleys with their water,” Wintch said.
Hunter said Iron County rightfully filed water rights in neighboring Beaver County and negotiated a settlement with Beaver County after litigation.
“It’s the best option we have to secure our water supply,” he said. “We think the water we draw there would barely make a dent. Beaver County is just mad about it because they didn’t think of it first.
Groundwater is an essential player in the United States’ water supply, according to the US Geological Survey, which points out that about half of the country’s population depends on it for drinking water. It is the source of almost all rural areas of the country and provides more than 50 billion gallons per day for agricultural needs.
But with these abstractions comes the risk of groundwater depletion, in which sustained pumping results in a drawdown from the water ‘bank account’ which cannot be sustained because more water is abstracted than is necessary. is replenished.
While a concern in Utah and southwestern states like Arizona, groundwater depletion has been a problem in many parts of the United States, including the Great Lakes watershed where Chicago has been using groundwater since 1864. Geological survey said it is the only source of drinking water. supplying water to more than 8.2 million people in the watershed and long-term pumping has caused water levels there to drop by as much as 900 feet.
As part of its environmental review, the Bureau of Land Management has acknowledged that the primary concern of the Pine Valley project is groundwater abstraction, with seven monitoring wells forming part of the proposal along with “adaptive management” strategies. which will be examined. .
The district maintains that the Pine Valley pumping project is sustainable and that the monitoring plan will be protective. The plan proposes to draw 15,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Pine Valley and take 6,500 feet from the Wah Wah Valley as it grows.
“We did everything right. We followed the law every step of the way. I guess they feel like they are stealing their water. It’s not their water. It belongs to the people of the state of Utah,” Hunter said.
Roerink says that view doesn’t do much long-term good to a drought-stricken area.
“Are we going to continue to be myopic and it will be too late or are we going to be proactive?” He asked. “It all comes down to Mother Nature not doing what she used to do anymore.”
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.