Iron County growers propose 115 new wells into Escalante Valley groundwater

Local businessmen apply for 50,000 acre-feet of water rights in a place that’s already overallocated.

(Utah Geological Survey) An earth fissure caused by flooding in 2005 near Beryl Junction, in the Escalante Valley in Iron County.

A groundwater rush appears to be unfolding in Utah’s arid southwest corner, where various schemes are under consideration to conjure water from deep aquifers under desert valleys that are already fully allocated.

The latest proposal comes from two business owners who have filed a water rights application with the Utah State Engineer seeking authority to withdraw 50,396 acre-feet a year from the Escalante Valley, straddling the Washingon-Iron county line, whose current groundwater withdrawals already exceed its recharge by a significant margin.

The idea is to supplement farmers operating around Beryl and Enterprise. These water users are subject to a groundwater management plan that is gradually reducing the amount of water they can use, according to proponents LaDel Laub and Jared Holt, who filed the application on April 25 on half of a new entity called Escalante Valley Partners LLC.

The application provides locations of 115 potential wells that would be drilled to depths between 1,000 and 5,500. Most of the wells would be in Iron County, with a few in Washington County.

But there is just one big hitch. It is not known for certain if these deep aquifers even exist, according to Kyle Roerink of the Great Basin Water Network. And if the aquifers are there, it is impossible to say how much water they would yield and whether it would be usable.

“It seems like the drier the times get the more schemes emerge that there are new water sources that have never been tapped before. There is no science behind these applications and very likely there is no source that could meet the demands of the applicants,” Roerink said. “This is a highly contested basin that has been adjudicated and there is a groundwater plan in place. When we look at the aquifers that do exist there is a lot of connectivity.”

That groundwater management plan, implemented by the State Engineer for what’s known as “Basin 71,” is part of the problem the new pumping proposal seeks to address, according to the application.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the State Engineer awarded far more rights to the valley’s groundwater than its aquifers could sustainably support. As the aquifers became depleted, the ground subsided in places, according to the Utah Geological Survey. A management plan was implemented to put groundwater withdrawals on a more sustainable footing, but at a steep cost to local growers who have relied on groundwater for generations.

Under this plan Basin 71 water users are to reduce their withdrawals from 109,000 acre-feet to 59,000 acre-feet over the next 100 years.

“This can only lead to many farmers losing substantial amounts of water rights. This Application seeks to appropriate groundwater found in deep aquifers, never tapped into yet,” Laub wrote in the water rights application. “No existing wells or water rights withdraw from (or propose to withdraw from) these deep aquifers. This new, deep groundwater resource will be used to offset the impending reductions, without impairing existing water rights.”

A 2008 study concluded the valley’s “safe yield” is 34,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year. That figure is the average amount of water recharged into the aquifer each year. It is also far less than what has been historically withdrawn.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the region’s growers after more than two decades of drought, increasing demand for groundwater. Last week, the State Engineer sent “cease use” letters to ranchers and farmers who hold rights to the Virgin River and its tributaries. Citing the streams’ diminished flows, the letter instructs water users to stop pulling water if their priority dates are 1901 or later.

The aim of Holt and Laub’s proposed deep groundwater withdrawals is to continue irrigating 12,600 acres of farmland between Beryl and Enterprise, the Escalante Valley west of Cedar City. The volume of water to be appropriated is to offset the losses these growers face under the Basin 71 groundwater management plan, according to the application.

Laub serves as president and CEO of Dixie Power, an independent utility provider based in Beryl. He is also the one-time executive director of Escalante Valley Water Users, an association that formed more than a decade ago to help manage local farmers’ water rights.

Holt serves as general counsel to Robert Holt Farms, a major agricultural producer in the area. He filed papers incorporating Escalante Valley Partners LLC on April 19, less than a week before they filed for the water rights application.

Holt and Laub declined to make themselves available for an interview Monday.

But in an emailed statement, Holt said they are following the lead set by Washington County Water Conservancy District, which recently filed an application to secure rights to groundwater along the Hurricane Fault, about 30 miles east of Enterprise.

“To the extent that there are also deeper aquifers that are unappropriated in Basin 71 in the Escalante Valley, then Escalante Valley Partners, LLC is filing on this water,” they said in the statement. “If, however, the deeper aquifers are determined to be connected to existing underground water rights, then Escalante Valley Partners, LLC won’t pursue its application.”

The Washington County application has drawn numerous protests from growers and elected officials in New Harmony and Kanarraville, who fear the water district’s proposed withdrawals would come at their communities’ expense.

Concerned parties have until June 22 to file protests to the Escalante Valley application. Great Basin Water Network intends to file a protest, as it did in the Washington County application, which remains under review by the State Engineer.

“This is just hocus-pocus water and follows a new trend in southern Utah of pretending that water exists where it doesn’t,” Roerink said. “A pattern is beginning to develop here and I hope the State Engineer sniffs it out and acts accordingly.”