Feds hand over water projects to local districts in Utah

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) At the Utah Capitol on Friday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, left, signs an agreement transferring title to two federal water projects to the Utah water agencies they serve. With Bernhardt are Lee McElprang, center, chairman of the Emery County Water Conservancy District, and Kirk Christensen, Moon Lake Water Users Association board president.

In what is being heralded as an historic first, the federal government on Tuesday handed title to a pair of federal water projects to the local Utah water agencies the projects serve.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt joined nearly all of Utah’s top political leadership in lauding the agreement at the Utah Capitol, where he officially signed over the century-old facilities to the Emery County Water Conservancy District and the Moon Lake Water Users Association, along with more than 1,100 acres controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“These title transfers fulfill the Trump administration’s goals to streamline bureaucratic processes, empower local ownership and facilitate infrastructure investment from non-federal sources,” Bernhardt said. “Local irrigation districts have paid for, operated and maintained these facilities. Transferring these facilities to local ownership saves American taxpayer dollars due to decreased federal operating costs and reduced liability.”

The move was made possible under an omnibus lands bill passed last year, enabling transfer of Reclamation facilities without explicit authorization from Congress. Friday’s transfers were the first of many envisioned for water districts around the West that have long paid off the federal project and wish to assume complete control of them.

“The federal government doesn’t give things back very often,” Sen. Mitt Romney said. “I hope these transfers are historic not only for what they mean for Emery County and Duchesne County, but because they portend many things like this happening in the future. In my mind it’s a very good thing when rights and responsibilities are returned to states and communities and districts and municipalities.”

(Photo courtesy of the Department of the Interior) Joes Valley Reservoir and other assets associated with the federal Emery County Project have been transferred to Utah's Emery County Water Conservancy District.

While Utah leaders heaped praise on the deal, many environmentalists viewed it with suspicion, wondering if it’s a baby step toward the wholesale transfer of public lands that Utah has long demanded.

Bernhardt assured that was not the case.

“We want to work with the states to manage the land well, but we’re not expecting any significant transfer of lands from the federal estate to the states at this time,” he said in response to reporters' questions. “Obviously, Congress has views on that and we respect their views.”

Under President Donald Trump, Interior has announced new regulations that greatly speed up the notoriously prolonged analyses of federal projects under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Bernhardt noted in his prepared remarks. Utah’s proposed Lake Powell Pipeline is one project whose environmental review has been fast-tracked, with a decision expected by November.

But the six states sharing the Colorado River Basin with Utah are now petitioning Bernhardt to hold off making a decision on the 140-mile pipeline, citing serious disagreements among the states over the legality of the pipeline’s transfer of water from Lake Powell to St. George.

Asked about that request Friday, Bernhardt was noncommittal.

“We deal with a lot of complex things and we’ll deal with this one. The reality, however, is that the basin states have worked cooperatively in a wonderful way for nearly 70 years,” said Bernhardt, a former industry lobbyist from Colorado. “We’ll look at the review and we’ll work with the various states. But it’s my belief and opinion that the relationship between states has been a net benefit to every state throughout the life of the [Colorado River] compact.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stressed Utah’s productive relationship with its fellow basin states dating back to 1922.

“I expect that to continue. We’ve been working on the Lake Powell pipeline project for 20 years, maybe more,” he said. “We appreciate the fact that we have a secretary [of the Interior] that said, ‘We aren’t going to drag this out. Let’s set a timeline, have the discussion, find the solutions and get things done.’”

Herbert and four members of the state’s congressional delegation spoke at Friday’s ceremony, all of them emphasizing a hope that the feds will cede greater control of public lands to Utah.

“In America, people govern best when they’re allowed to govern locally. That ultimately is our goal,” said Sen. Mike Lee. “And the fact that we have 70% of the land in federal hands doesn’t make any sense. This is a small but important step in that direction.”

Lee recently introduced legislation that would slash the allowed time for environmental reviews under NEPA — an attempt to get congressional approval in the face of threatened lawsuits against the Trump administration’s push to make the change by rule.

Romney said he longs for a day when Utah can manage its 8 million acres of national forest, citing the catastrophic fires he attributes to the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to actively manage these woodlands.

“Perhaps just one [forest] at a time on a pilot basis,” he said. “Someday I’d like to see Utah get back a very healthy share of its land. But that’s for the future.”

He remarks seemed to echo those made recently by Lee, who insisted mismanagement of forests is the sole cause of the wildfires — not climate change, as experts have said. Scientists are overwhelmingly in agreement that climate change is a lead cause of the growing epidemic of Western wildfires.

Transferred to the local agencies on Friday were the Emery County and the Uinta Basin Replacement projects.

Joes Valley Reservoir is the centerpiece of the Emery County Project, which includes Huntington North Reservoir, Swasey Diversion Dam, Cottonwood Creek-Huntington Canal, Huntington North Service and Feeder canals and evacuation pipeline and Upper Lakes Reservoir.

The Moon Lake Water Users Association received the Uinta Basin project which includes title to 14.7 acres and another 980 acres of easements that cover the Big Sand Wash Feeder Diversion and Pipeline, Big Sand Wash Reservoir enlargement and Big Sand Wash Roosevelt Pipeline.

The Bureau of Reclamation built this water infrastructure decades ago, but the local water agencies have reimbursed construction costs and have long operated them, according to Herbert.

“As we transfer ownership today, the management responsibilities don’t change. The impact to the public will remain the same. They’ve been managing these not only efficiently but effectively and respecting the taxpayers' dollars for many decades. This is kind of akin to paying off your mortgage,” the governor said. “We paid the debt and so today we’re going to actually get deed to the property.”