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Some Water Right Holders Could Face Reductions

Some Water Right Holders Could Face Reductions

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Parts of Utah have more water rights than water, which has allowed pumping to exceed the natural recharging of aquifers and could force curbs on water rights, the state engineer says.

In a speech Friday to the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, state Engineer Jerry Olds said areas that will likely be hardest hit include Salt Lake, Davis and western Iron counties along with the Milford area in Beaver County.

Much of the overallocation of water rights occurred during the late 1940s and early 1950s as Utah developed much of its current water resources. Officials had limited aquifer data at that time, Olds said.

"They overshot in some cases," Olds said. He said the state now has a better handle on how much water is actually left in Utah's aquifers.

Determining how best to administer existing water rights based on the overallocations likely means changes in water law, including reallocating some rights.

"This could have far-reaching ramifications," Olds said.

Wes Clinton, vice president for public policy for the farm bureau, said there is "no question" that such reallocations and law changes will affect agriculture. Farmers have large investments in equipment and land that could be hurt if water rights are curtailed.

"The question is how and who should take on the burden (of such changes)," Clinton said. "Who gets cut back? Will it be by appropriation first in time, first in right or by proportion, where every farmer takes a hit?"

Olds said the Legislature's Natural Resources Interim Committee will be asked to address the topic later this year.

The area around Hill Air Force Base in northern Davis County is showing the largest aquifer decline in Utah, while the Milford area also shows steep declines, Olds said. Salt Lake Valley is overallocated by six times, he added.

Western Iron County poses special problems in groundwater management with 80,000 acre-feet pumped -- having been pumped from local aquifers each year and replaced by just more than 33,000 acre-feet of water annually over the past 10 years, Olds said. Farmers hold rights for the water, but the area is overallocated, Olds said.

Because of the drought, Olds on Wednesday issued a cut-off order on water rights dated after 1865 that allowed water users to draw directly from the Weber River. He cited that as an example of how water rights work in Utah. As more water becomes available, those rights will be restored. In the meantime, irrigation and water companies that draw from the Weber River will have to temporarily use other sources, he said.

Olds is also troubled by the lack of money available for water rights enforcement. He cited one example of a farmer who has exceeded his water rights by more than 90 acre-feet annually in recent years. Prosecuting that case could cost as much as $30,000 to force the farmer to stop.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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