Is Cedar City’s growth coming at expense of rural Utah?

An Iron County water district is seeking to move up to 15,000 acre feet of ground water from Beaver County’s Pine Valley to Cedar City.

(Great Basin Water Network) The Central Iron County Water Conservancy Districts plans to pump groundwater from Utah's Pine Valley, pictured here, and pipe it 66 miles to growing Cedar City.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

A high-cost proposal to pump billions of gallons of groundwater from Utah’s West Desert has moved one step closer to approval with the Bureau of Land Management’s completion of a draft environmental review.

Derided by critics as a “water grab,” the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District’s Pine Valley project would pipe at least 15,000 acre-feet from Beaver County to feed rapid growth around Cedar City. Iron County needs to “diversify” its water sources to replace the groundwater it has been removing from under Cedar Valley, according to a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) completed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Signed by BLM Color County District manager Gloria Tibbetts — based in Cedar City — and dated September 2021, the 256-page document was posted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It has yet to be formally released by the BLM, although the BLM has posted supporting technical documents. Once the BLM does post the document, it will initiate a 45-day public comment period, according to spokeswoman Kim Finch.

A diverse array of critics, including environmentalists, ranchers and county commissioners, contend this $260 million project would unnecessarily sap groundwater from sparsely inhabited valleys, putting at-risk native fish and a rural way of life, while triggering astronomical rate increases needed to pay for it.

“Who is going to pay the price? There will be rate hikes between 300 and 800%. This is Iron County’s own data,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network. “Depending on which service area they’re in, you could see massive rate hikes.”

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

The proposal, meanwhile, has prompted another group to file a petition to list the least chub, a rare fish native to Utah’s Bonneville Basin, for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Ranchers might be another endangered species if Iron County takes this water, according to Mark Wintch, immediate past president of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association who runs cattle and a farm in neighboring Wah Wah Valley.

“My overall concern is we get six inches of rain here annually,” he said. “It’s awful dry. To think that these valleys are going to be able to regenerate that water with what little rainfall there is is ridiculous,” Wintch said. “I find it repugnant that the state of Utah would fight so hard against Las Vegas to shut down the Snake Valley project, but we’re going to let one of our own communities destroy surrounding communities.”

He was referring to the Nevada megapolis’s failed plans to pump groundwater from the valley straddling the Utah-Nevada state line just north of Wah Wah Valley. Utah water officials regarded that proposal as a major threat to rural West Desert communities, yet appear to be comfortable with a similar, though smaller proposal brought by a fast-growing Utah county.

Water makes a city

The ground under Cedar Valley is sinking in places because the water district annually removes 7,000 more acre-feet each year from these aquifers than nature can replenish. The Central Iron County Water Conservancy District’s solution is to build a network of wells and pipelines that would extract water from under Pine Valley and move it 66 miles south to Cedar City. The mainline would be 40 inches in diameter and then increase to 54 inches as it nears its southern terminus. The enlarged diameter is needed to accommodate water from subsequent phases tapping Wah Wah and Hamlin valleys.

The new EIS takes at face value the Utah State Engineer’s 2014 conclusion that there is 16,650 acre-feet of groundwater available for appropriation from Pine Valley. The U.S. Geological Survey has pegged the safe yield for Pine and Wah Wah valley’s combined at between 11,000 and 14,000 acre-feet, about half what Central Iron County intends to pull from these valleys.

Roerink, with the water conservation activists, faulted the BLM’s review for failing to explore the hydrological connections between the various West Desert basins. There is ample evidence that pulling groundwater from one valley would lead to drawdowns elsewhere as groundwater migrates to fill “cones of depression” left by wells.

“Groundwater boundaries don’t exist within the confines of that box. We’re dealing with a massive regional system that is inextricably tied to Nevada and the Great Salt Lake and the communities all along the way,” Roerink said. “The scope of which they have been doing their review is so small. It’s either a naive approach or it’s willfully ignorant because we have to consider the regional impacts here.”

Over the objections of Beaver County, the state engineer awarded Central Iron County the rights to 26,500 acre-feet of Pine and Wah Wah valleys’ groundwater in 2019. The order also included instructions to the water district to implement a monitoring program to ensure that no prior water rights are impaired or safe yield is exceeded. But such safeguards mean little to Wintch.

“There’s zero assurances. Here’s the reality, they will never stop [pumping groundwater],” the former president of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association said. “These communities that are growing in these deserts, once they get a drop of water, that water will never be turned off.”

Paul Monroe, the water district’s general manager, did not respond to a voicemail.

Teaming with Utah Rivers Council, Roerink launched a website, www.ironcountywater.org, to highlight the project’s fiscal impacts and the rate increases needed to cover its costs.

The EIS does not examine the possibility that water demand could drop in the face of such large price hikes.

“By not addressing the water savings they haven’t identified a need for the project,” said Zach Frankel, the executive director of Utah Rivers Council. Citing the district’s audits, he said 67% of the water district’s $2 million in revenue comes from property taxes.

“It’s the opposite of the free market,” Frankel said. “If they would lower the tax subsidy and raise rates, they would lower water use.”

The EIS acknowledges Cedar City residences’ monthly water bills would increase from an average of $17 to $71, or by 318%, by 2030, to pay for the project. However, it says not building the pipeline may carry an even heavier burden to these same ratepayers, because the cost of acquiring and developing the rights to 12,000 acre-feet of surface water in the Cedar Valley is $420 million over the next 50 years.

“If Cedar City is unable to source additional water, the municipality would likely experience restrictions on new development and water usage by current residents,” the document states. “If the water supply becomes constrained by 2040, the total economic loss over the subsequent decade is estimated at $1 billion.”

The forgotten least chub

Joining the fray on Thursday was the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a petition seeking threatened species status for the least chub, a tiny minnow whose range overlaps the basins affected by the project.

Krista Kemppinen, a senior scientist with the group said Iron County’s designs on Pine, Hamlin and Wah Wah valleys pose “an existential threat” to the least chub because the plan would remove billions of gallons of groundwater that would otherwise feed springs that the rare fish relies on.

“The fish requires water to meet all of its life stages,” Kemppinen said. “It depends on a reliable discharge from the spring at a given temperature. It’s very important to keep this naturally fluctuating environment of the spring and the marshes and not have the amount water springs decrease too much.”

The Pine Valley EIS, however, makes no reference to the least chub or any other species fish. It dismisses the project’s potential to affect fish by saying that no fish occur in the springs, streams or wetlands associated with the pipelines and 23 wells that would be built.

But, the affected valleys harbor four of the remaining seven wild populations of least chub.

“Despite the efforts by Utah to protect the least chub, such as maintaining refuge populations, the majority of naturally occurring populations continue to decline or are in a precarious state,” said Kemppinen. “In addition to restoring populations, we need to protect the wild places where this species has continued to survive.”