Conservation groups seek federal probe of Virgin River reservoir proposal

Critics claim depiction as an agriculture project is a subterfuge to secure federal subsidies.

(Courtesy photo by Natural Resources Conservation Service) This basin in Utah’s Long Valley near Orderville would be inundated by a proposed dam impounding the Virgin River's water. The project is supposed to benefit alfalfa growers, but critics contend that is a subterfuge to win big federal subsidies and that its real aim is store water to feed growth in the St. George area.

A coalition of environmental groups is calling for an investigation into the proposed Cove Reservoir, alleging the southern Utah project’s environmental review brazenly mischaracterized the dam’s purpose to win federal subsidies intended to support rural communities and agriculture.

Designed to impound 6,000 acre-feet of water on the Virgin River’s East Fork, this reservoir proposed by the Kane County Water Conservancy District is supposed to irrigate nearly 5,000 acres of alfalfa far downstream in St. George. The group’s analysis of the lands to be irrigated, however, found most of this land is or will soon be blanketed in asphalt, subdivisions, churches and a school.

“The gamesmanship behind this use of taxpayer money is outrageous and merits a robust investigation as to the role Trump Administration staff and others inside Utah have played,” said Zachary Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, one of seven groups demanding a probe. “It’s not OK to trick taxpayers into paying for things that government agencies have no intention of doing.”

Their letter, sent Tuesday to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s inspector general, asks the agency watchdog to determine whether Trump administration officials or the two Utah water districts behind the dam pressured the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, to falsely portray the reservoir as an agricultural project as part of a scheme to improperly tap federal subsidies under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act. The NRCS is to cover 75% of the project’s $30 million costs.

Norm Evenstad, the NRCS’s Utah water resources coordinator, denied his agency rigged the draft environmental assessment it released in November, or was pressured to do so.

“It’s a project that could really bring some benefit to that part of the state and build some community resiliency out there for storage,” he said. The dam would be located west of Orderville just off the Virgin’s main stem and would be filled via an existing diversion structure and pipeline.

During the public comment period for the project, which closed Dec. 31, the agency was flooded with criticisms rebutting the claim that it would help agriculture. Even state officials saw holes in the conclusions that the Cove Reservoir would benefit endangered native fish species that inhabit the Virgin downstream.

NRCS and its contractor will weigh these comments and may incorporate the groups’ criticisms into the environmental assessment’s final draft and decision document, according to Evenstad.

“We’re working through all of those comments right now,” he said. “As a team, we’ll look at that and look at that verbiage and respond accordingly. We’re very early and we want to be factual with any response that we give.”

The project’s primary purpose is to support alfalfa growers by storing water during the spring for use in irrigation by late summer when river flows are low, according to the assessment. It identifies hydropower generation, water recreation and improved fish habitat as ancillary benefits.

Evenstad said the final draft will likely add fire protection as a benefit since the Cove Reservoir would create a reliable water source for fighting wildfires that are liable to ignite on nearby land in Kane, Garfield and Iron counties

But critics contend the assessment fails to mention how the water would most likely be used and who would really benefit by its diversion. Frankel and his allies argue the real beneficiaries would be neither fish nor farmers, but rather the water rights holders who could convert the water, diverted at a huge cost to taxpayers, from agricultural to municipal uses and then sell their rights to St. George developers at a tidy profit.

“Federal officials must not be hoodwinked. This proposal pays homage to water waste and slaps taxpayers, the Virgin River, and the agricultural community in the face,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “It’s flabbergasting that applicants will go to such extremes to get money when the easy and admirable solution of water conservation is readily available.”

At the heart of the groups’ allegation is a map of the project lands provided by the NRCS’ contractor Transcon Environmental. The footprint of land to be irrigated — an area called Washington Fields straddling St. George and Washington City — is far less than the 4,852 acres that the environmental review said would be irrigated.

“Our analysis indicates that more than half of this region has already been developed into new roads, subdivisions, churches, schools and strip malls,” the groups’ letter states. “We calculate that there are roughly 900 acres of open land remaining in this Washington County region, which at most represents just 18% of the agricultural acreage claim made in the [environmental assessment] for this area.”

The groups contend this apparent failure to accurately describe the lands to be watered “raises troubling questions” about the integrity of the proposal.

“Not only does this proposal violate a series of federal statutes, it robs precious funding from other worthy applications seeking to protect America’s agricultural heritage by draining funds from [Department of Agriculture] coffers,” their letter states.

Other groups asking for the investigation include Living Rivers, Center for Biological Diversity, Glen Canyon Institute, WildEarth Guardians and Save the Colorado.

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