Wolf Creek water district halts new service for development as drought stretches on

Wolf Creek Water and Sewer Improvement District serves nearly 1,600 residents in unincorporated areas of Weber County, but has had to stop new water service to developers.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Lots along Porcupine Ridge under construction in Eden, Aug. 18, 2021. Wolf Creek Water and Sewer Improvement District has imposed a moratorium on new construction.

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An Aug. 12 meeting was the first time that the board of trustees at the Wolf Creek Water and Sewer Improvement District faced developers after announcing a moratorium on “can and will serve letters” for new water service — and lot owners weren’t happy.

The moratorium, which will be reevaluated by the district in March, essentially puts a stop to new homes on the hillside below the popular Powder Mountain ski resort, an area where development has been booming the past few years.

One lawyer said his client had already paid $22,500 in fees to the water district and was eager to start building. The attorney called on the board to issue a letter to get the project moving.

“I would be very interested to know, sir, just which of my customers I should kick off the system to allow your customer to hook up,” responded Miranda Menzies, chair of Wolf Creek Water and Sewer Improvement District’s board. “Which house would you like pulled down?”

Water is scarce

The views from plots in the district show how little water there is. A few miles down the hill, beyond the town of Eden, Pineview Reservoir sits half full, with mud exposed below the beaches and boat launches. The level is so low that a sunken car reappeared after vanishing below the water several years ago.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Wolf Creek Water and Sewer Improvement District has imposed a moratorium on new construction in the Wolf Creek subdivision in Eden Aug. 18, 2021.

The water district, which serves around 1,590 residents, is the latest Utah community to consider development against existing water needs. Like the towns of Oakley and Henefer, Wolf Creek Water and Sewer Improvement District — which is run by an elected board — says it made the move to continue serving its current customers, rather than depleting water supplies for new development.

“We’ve never done this before,” said Annette Ames, a controller for the district. “We will reevaluate, and it will depend on the type of winter that we get. If we don’t get any snow, we just really can’t stretch it for that far, because we’ve had two or three bad years of snowpack, and so we’re just going to wait and see.”

Wolf Creek has already put restrictions in place, cutting down irrigation to three days a week and urging residents to trim their overall water usage to 20,000 gallons or lower, sending 130 letters to individual homes that used over 25,000 gallons of water per month — which resulted in a reduction in use of about 40%.

The average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day, translating to about 10,000 gallons per month, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, with 30% allocated to outdoor uses. Water use varies from county to county in Utah, however, as evidenced by a recent “water census” from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The district has also seen even more reduction from the Wolf Creek Resort golf course, which can reuse water generated by the sewage plant.

Ames said residents showed a fairly good response to these restrictions, which has helped to stretch what water they do have.

“Many systems up and down the Wasatch Front are going to be shutting down within the next few weeks,” Menzies said during the meeting, mentioning that Weber Basin Water Conservancy District plans to shut off irrigation water to West Haven starting Sept 1.

Rob Thomas, the water district’s general manager, said during the meeting that he sees the area running on a normal schedule and shutting off irrigation sometime in October, “so if everybody continues to do their part, we’ll be able to get through the season.”

“Our irrigation system is dependent upon inflow from the Wolf Creek channel,” Menzies said in the meeting. “Inflow right now is roughly one half of normal, which is the reason why we’ve been making requests to our customers since May and June [to conserve water]. Early May is when we first informed them that there was an issue.”

The drought has shown its impacts through a nearby source used to monitor water levels. The Highlands Well, which serves as an indicator well for the Eden area, has not had a significant seasonal recharge year since 2019 and, in 2021, the “recharge basically didn’t happen,” Menzies said.

“The summer Wolf Creek rain, in the last four or five years, has simply stopped,” Menzies said. “Our job, as a district, is to be responsible stewards, and particularly, safeguarding supply for our existing active accounts. Our mission is to keep faucets running and potties flushing; it’s as simple as that.”

Development planned for wetter years

The lack of water isn’t new for Wolf Creek. Menzies said officials have known for a couple of years that there was a “long-term problem” with the building plan that Weber County approved in 2002 and reaffirmed in 2016.

Menzies said that plan was based on water assumptions that were “unreasonably optimistic.” In 2019, Wolf Creek passed a moratorium on the creation of new lots and formalized requirements for developers to bring water to “satisfy their development.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Lots for sale on Elk Ridge in the Wolf Creek subdivision in Eden, Aug. 18, 2021. Wolf Creek Water and Sewer Improvement District has imposed a moratorium on new service letters.

Wolf Creek expects to move forward with at least two wells in the next year. Previous drilling efforts have been delayed because of issues with the hard quartzite rock under the bench, along with getting regulatory approvals for the wells, according to Menzies.

Menzies said most residents have been supportive of the moratorium. Developers, on the other hand, are deeply unhappy with Wolf Creek’s decision, in part since those without service must continue to pay a monthly fee until they are able to receive service.

Customers with active service pay a base charge of $98 per month, with tiered rates per 1,000 gallons used, Menzies said. Those on standby — meaning a lot has been created by a developer, with infrastructure installed and the lot platted by the county — pay a $39 monthly fee to maintain the water connection in the ground.

Developers also must pay impact fees when the lots are created and recorded at the county, Menzies said. According to Wolf Creek’s webpage, fees that homebuilders pay before they can even be issued a service letter add up to over $21,000.

Roughly 320 lots of the 1,500 accounts in the area are currently on standby, Menzies said, and won’t be taken off until the moratorium is lifted, which will be reviewed in March.

“Obviously, we’ve looked at other things [to solve this problem],” Menzies said in the meeting. “We’ve looked at buying water. We’ve been turned down. We’ve looked at cooperation agreements with other water companies. We’ve been rejected. We’ve been threatened with lawsuits from other water companies. I tell you, the list of things is quite impressive. And, yes, we have done our due diligence. "