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John Hollenhorst reporting In the Old West, they used to fight over water. Sometimes they even killed over it.
Now a new battle over water may be shaping up in Utah that could be politically explosive.
The state's top water-rights official is warning that a vital natural resource, groundwater, is being depleted in several key areas of the state.
One proposed solution could be a huge blow to families and businesses that depend on that water.
Suppose your farm or home had valid water rights for a half-century or so. And then the state came along and said, "Sorry, you can't have your water anymore!"
Those are fightin' words. But it could happen. And it has almost nothing to do with the drought.
Last year, as the drought deepened in the Enterprise area west of Cedar City, farmers and ranchers were forced to drill deeper wells.
Their old ones were sucking air. As we learned last year, that's not a small matter.
Dale Gardner/Gardner Drilling/June 2002: "It's a big investment. It would be like an individual in the city going out and refinancing to build another house."
The drought may have aggravated the problem. But it didn't cause it. And the problem won't go away when the drought's over.
When someone drilled a well near Enterprise back in the 1940's, they had to go down only 100 feet. The aquifer has steadily declined, even in wet years. Now a well has to be drilled almost 220 feet down.
Jerry Olds is the state's top water rights official. He says the declines are happening because water rights granted decades ago were based on faulty estimates of Mother Nature's ability to replenish the aquifers.
Jerry Olds/State Engineer: "They have been over-appropriated. There's more water rights that have been granted than there is physical water available."
Aquifers have also declined sharply in the valleys of Cedar City, Parowan, Pahvant and Milford.
Olds will ask lawmakers this week to clarify the law, possibly using an old doctrine that favors those who got their water rights first.
Jerry Olds: "Cutting off those with the latest priority, giving the water to those with the earliest priority."
That would mean many water users who got their water rights after World War II might lose their water entirely.
Jerry Olds: "There's no doubt, it could impact individuals, families, businesses, communities. And that's why we're taking this to the legislature. It's an important issue."
If the problem isn't addressed, Olds predicts more expensive drilling and declining water quality.
Jerry Olds: "Also raises the risk of land subsidence. As the water is removed, then the formation collapses."
"And I think it's a serious issue that we need to have the public debate and decide where to go. The question I ask, 'If we don't do it now, when?'"
So far, aquifers under the Salt Lake Valley have not declined. But Olds says water rights have been granted for three times the water that Nature replenishes under Salt Lake County.
With ongoing growth, that's a potential crisis here sometime in the future.