How simmering conflicts over canyon land, the Mountain Accord and Facebook erupted into Utah’s latest water war

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) High country in Big Cottonwood Canyon, as seen Dec. 1, 2017. Interviews and emails show that a handful of failed yet controversial water-related bills at Utah’s Capitol are part of a long-standing dispute involving Wasatch canyons lands, the Mountain Accord, wilderness, water usage in and outside Salt Lake City and even Facebook.

Utah lawmakers have declared a cease-fire in the state’s most recent water war, but it’s unclear for now whether the truce will be permanent.

A political feud that took shape largely behind the scenes of the 2018 legislative session entangled some of the state’s top water experts, city officials, developers and key legislators before all temporarily lowered their guns.

It stemmed from a series of long-standing disputes over canyon development, green space, the Mountain Accord — and even Facebook. At least five related bills ultimately emerged on Capitol Hill, all tied to the same three lawmakers and their late-2017 meeting with a controversial would-be developer turned activist.

Motivated by different interests, they emerged with a single focus — Salt Lake City’s water department — and would make it the target of a kind of legislative crusade. While none of the bills passed, they made clear the underlying conflicts are deep and unresolved.

Among lawmakers behind these salvos was Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, a longtime critic of what he sees as government overreach. Noel was incensed over parts of the Mountain Accord, a sweeping land-use agreement covering canyons of the Central Wasatch — and he particularly disliked a proposal by former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz to designate about 8,000 acres of land in the Wasatch Mountains as new federally managed wilderness.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep Mike Noel, R-Kanab, as seen on Thursday, March 1, 2018. Long a critic of what he sees as government overreach, Noel was a main player in a spate of controversial water-related bills during the 2018 Utah Legislature.

Saying he was blindsided by the wilderness request, Noel sponsored HB136 as an attempt to halt public officials from speaking out in support of federal land designations without first getting feedback from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, Noel said his intent was to “ensure any request has local support, is backed by best management practices, [and] was open to the public.”

Noel, also powerful chairman of House Rules, would also have a hand in other measures aimed Salt Lake City’s way.

Facebook walks

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said she also worried about the Mountain Accord and its potential effects on land use in her district. But it was West Jordan’s failure to strike a business deal with social-media giant Facebook in 2016 that drew her into the controversy.

West Jordan had just lost a major employer, then-mayor Kim Rolfe said, and officials hoped Facebook would choose the city as the site of a new data center. But Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams challenged the deal, questioning, among other things, whether West Jordan could provide massive volumes of water Facebook said it needed to cool the facility’s computer servers.

After the Facebook bid fell through, Rolfe relayed his frustrations over McAdams’ claims to Coleman. The former mayor said he then let the matter drop, and Rolfe has since left public office for a job as a private construction contractor.

Coleman pursued the matter, which took her to the Utah Quality Growth Commission, created in 1999 to study growth issues.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, talks with her intern Kate Wheeler in the Utah House of Representatives, on Friday, March 2, 2018. Coleman backed a bill forcing Utah cities to disclose details on their surplus water contracts.

The commission’s executive director at the time, John Bennett, said that in 2016 the group was struggling with a lack of funding and sought to drum up support for its mission by taking on several water controversies, including the Facebook deal.

To Bennett, claims the Salt Lake Valley didn’t have enough water to support a major business such as Facebook rang only partly true. Through his experience with a failed land-conservation nonprofit, Bennett said he understood that much of the valley’s water was tied up by Salt Lake City.

As one of Utah’s oldest and largest cities, Bennett contends, it has amassed a near-monopoly on water, raising what he contends are unanswered questions on how much the city is actually using.

Under Utah’s sometimes-serpentine water laws, in some cases, the city cannot use water it owns, due to decades-old contracts and agreements. The Utah Constitution, meanwhile, prohibits all municipalities from selling or leasing their water to others.

“This is a great big puzzle, and it takes a little while to unravel it,” Bennett told The Tribune. “But we begin to see that Salt Lake City’s holdings are rather large, and that puts them in a position to make decisions for others … because they control the water.”

By summer 2016, the Quality Growth Commission was seeking to learn more about Salt Lake City’s water holdings when Coleman began to attend its meetings. That, she said, sparked further questions.

In the legislative session that ended last week, Coleman sponsored HB124 to require Salt Lake and other cities to disclose details on certain water contracts — including the amount of water being sold as “surplus” to residents and businesses outside the cities’ boundaries.

Salt Lake City Director of Public Utilities Laura Briefer said she wasn’t sure what problem HB124 aimed to solve. The city has provided surplus water to surrounding communities for decades, she said, and has no intention of cutting off those supplies in future.

A question of timing

That same summer two years ago, Bennett said, members of the Quality Growth Commission also took up the issue of Salt Lake City’s authority to regulate development and recreation in the canyons from which it draws its drinking water — authority the city insists it needs to protect water quality and keep treatment costs low.

Those discussions grew so heated, officials with Gov. Gary Herbert suggested the commission take a break and let things cool down.

Shortly after, Bennett said, the panel got a letter from the Legislative Commission for Stewardship of Public Lands, created in 2014 to study the controversial idea of transferring public lands to the state of Utah. Co-chaired by Rep. Keven Stratton, that group asked for a report on any discussions of Salt Lake City’s watershed authority outside its boundaries.

(AP file photo) Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, as see on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Stratton backed a move to amend the Utah Constitution to allow cities to lease their surplus water, but the measure was set aside for study.

The request, said Bennett, was exactly what the struggling commission had sought to breathe life into its activities. If the Quality Growth Commission could provide valuable insight on the issue to legislators, he said, perhaps that would raise the commission’s profile and shore up its precarious future. So Bennett said the panel complied with Stratton’s request.

And while its talks continued into 2017, Bennett did not attend the commission’s later meetings. His wife fell ill with cancer in early 2017 and died in February. A few weeks later, Bennett was told that funding for his executive director position was being cut. He has since left the job and now works for the state Department of Workforce Services.

His replacement, Evan Curtis, provided The Tribune with a copy of a commission letter, stating the panel’s belief the watershed jurisdiction issue deserved further study, but that it lacked the proper expertise.

Current commission members declined to comment on the matter, with one citing the latest legislative spat over water.

Stratton, R-Orem, also did not respond to a request for comment. But several sources have linked him to talks involving Noel, Coleman and a central figure in water disputes with Salt Lake City — entrepreneur and former Salt Lake County mayoral candidate Dave Robinson.

Just add water

Robinson has a long history of involvement in negotiating through water and land-use conflicts with Salt Lake City, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, but also as a would-be developer in the Cottonwood canyons.

According to Robinson, he envisioned creating a nonprofit firm that would use private funds to conserve land in the Wasatch mountains. Working in tandem with Bennett, Robinson aimed to buy desirable properties near ski resorts and cities, and then trade those properties for larger, less valuable properties in the Wasatch backcountry. The smaller properties would be developed for profit, while the larger lots would become dedicated conservation areas, deeded to Robinson and Bennett’s nonprofit.

(Steve Griffin / Tribune file photo) David Robinson, as seen on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016.

Robinson said he had owners of about 1,000 undeveloped acres in the Wasatch canyons committed to swapping land via the deal. He said he put earnest money down on a piece of property near Solitude, and submitted a development plan to Salt Lake City in 2012.

But Robinson said he decided to drop the project after running into opposition, with environmentalists and some in the media accusing him of pushing mass development in the canyons.

At the time, he said, many believed the Mountain Accord would resolve conflicts in canyon development. And while Robinson was doubtful, he said he decided to let the process play out before pursuing his own proposal.

“The timing and political climate was just off for conservation efforts,” Robinson said, so he “eliminated the issue” and let his contract on land he aimed to buy expire. Robinson does not currently own land in the Wasatch, but has kept up relationships with property owners in the area, quietly staying active on related water issues, he said, as a “community activist.”

“There are issues that, when I feel passionate about them, I get involved in them,” he said.

Call to action

That all appears to have made Robinson a force in the latest debate. Noel said he has known Robinson for several years, and that they share concerns about the Mountain Accord. Robinson connected with Stratton over the Quality Growth Commission’s watershed report. Coleman said she was referred to Robinson as an expert on water issues.

In late 2017, the four ended up in a private meeting that documents would later show played a pivotal role for the latest legislative campaign. Emails obtained by the environmental group Save Our Canyons show Robinson repeatedly exchanged messages with Noel and Coleman, reviewing and suggesting language for their draft bills.

Coleman backed HB124, the water contracts bill, and a second proposal, HB255, requiring cities to prove a “compelling” interest before they could use city money to buy property beyond their municipal boundaries. That measure stemmed from concerns raised by either Bennett or Robinson.

Noel ended up pushing on Stratton’s apparent concerns over cities regulating watersheds outside their boundaries. His HB135 would have curtailed that authority for Salt Lake and other large Utah cities.

And apparently to address Coleman’s concerns over city water sales and leasing, Stratton carried HJR15, a proposal to amend the Utah Constitution’s ban on city water leasing. A House committee delayed voting on that idea for at least a year.

Suspicious ties?

Naturally, not everyone is entirely pleased with the backroom dealings that produced these bills.

“This is all a great conversation to have, more broadly,” said Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. “But to just kind of unilaterally run legislation to end what has been over a century of stewardship and protection of mountain and water resources immediately adjacent to the most populous areas of the state of Utah … really jeopardizes the Wasatch Mountains and public health.”

Fisher said Save Our Canyons continues to worry that Robinson is simply working on behalf of Wasatch landowners, with the goal of making it easier to get water, zoning and city amenities to promote their canyon projects.

The group also raised concerns over the longstanding friendship between Robinson and Bennett. Save Our Canyons filed a 2017 complaint with the state auditor over what it sees as Bennett’s conflicts of interest, but dropped the matter after Bennett left his Quality Growth Commission post.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Laura Briefer, Salt Lake City's director of public utilities, as seen Dec. 5, 2016.

Briefer, director of Salt Lake City public utilities, confirmed that disputes over water and zoning issues had hampered Robinson’s own development proposal. She expressed frustration over the series of bills apparently aimed at undermining the city’s water department, in what she worried was an attempt to force it to provide water to key properties tied to Robinson.

Briefer also pointed to threats she said were made by another Wasatch developer, Evan Johnson, to find a way to gut Salt Lake City’s watershed authority if it did not cooperate. She said Bennett and Robinson continue to proffer erroneous information that appears to come from Johnson.

Robinson confirmed that Johnson once granted him power of attorney so that he could speak on his behalf. However, Robinson said he severed all ties with Johnson about two years ago after a falling out.

Johnson, likewise, denies any involvement in this year’s water-related lobbying effort.

‘Rise to the occasion’

But emails obtained by Save Our Canyons show that before they parted ways, Johnson and Robinson discussed their strategy to “get water” out of Salt Lake City. One of their approaches, Fisher said, apparently involved petitioning Mike Styler, director of the Utah Division of Natural Resources, to create artificial ponds in the canyon to get water to their Wasatch lots.

Styler said he remembered discussing the ponds idea, but concluded after investigating the matter that it wasn’t possible.

“I went down and talked to the state engineer and said, ‘Is this feasible?’” Styler said. “He said, ‘I don’t think so,’ so I didn’t pay much more attention to it.”

Styler said he learned of the latest spat when Stratton approached him about amending the Utah Constitution. Hearing Stratton’s plan, Styler said he called an emergency meeting of the state’s Executive Water Task Force, whose members voted unanimously to urge that lawmakers put HB124, HB135 and the constitutional amendment on hold.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mike Styler, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resource.

Styler said the bills threatened to erode a potential compromise. The agency chief recently introduced Briefer to Robinson in hopes of fostering dialogue — and, Styler said, they seemed to be making some progress.

While doing little to get water to otherwise undevelopable properties in the canyons, this session’s water bills forced vexing statewide issues his department has worried about for years, Styler said. But he questioned the wisdom of pushing the agenda now and said he continues to urge talks involving Briefer and others in search of a resolution.

“I don’t think that them making her feel defensive is going to help their situation,” he said.

Still, Styler said the burst of water bills raised issues reaching far beyond the 2018 session.

”Can [these bills] help us on broader public issues? I think so,” he said. “And I think Laura [Briefer] is in a very difficult situation. She needs to rise to the occasion. And hopefully those who are detractors will also rise to the occasion and work through some solutions.”