As building booms on the Wasatch Back, a groundwater disaster looms

Some communities in the Weber Basin have ongoing construction moratoriums due to a lack of water, but without better management, fears arise that aquifers could get sucked dry.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Homes above Pineview Reservoir in Eden on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

Peter Turner took a job in the ski business and relocated from Colorado to Utah 17 years ago, buying a 2,000-square-foot home in the hills near Eden. At the time, it was idyllic — he was surrounded mostly by open space, lush fields, a stunning view of Pineview Reservoir, with Snowbasin a doable bike ride away in the summer months.

But in the years since, houses keep sprouting up, gobbling the open space. Many owners don’t even live there full time, but their landscapes remain lush and pristine.

“That house there is not a primary residence,” he said on a recent tour of his neighborhood’s newer estates. “And the one next to it, I’ve seen people there, like, twice in the last few years.”

Turner has a familiarity with certain homeowners and their habits because he serves as president of Pineview West Water Co., a supplier to about 85 homes stretching up a hillside west of the reservoir’s marina. It’s also one of around 80 small water providers operating in the Ogden Valley. And, like a lot of those providers, Turner is becoming increasingly concerned there’s not enough water to meet soaring demand.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Peter Turner in the Reserve at Crimson Ridge, an Eden subdivision on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

Looking from Turner’s neighborhood to Pineview Reservoir, it’s clear something isn’t right. The low levels and exposed beaches are nowhere near normal for this time of year. The groundwater on which many communities in the Weber Basin depend, however, is harder to see and gauge.

But signs keep popping up that all is not well underground either.

‘It’s just insane’

Amid climate change, Utah has been locked in a prolonged and persistent drought that has driven the Great Salt Lake to a record low, prompted lawmakers to spend big on conservation projects (thanks to help from federal pandemic and infrastructure funds) and pushed water managers to restrict irrigation.

On the north end of the Ogden Valley, Wolf Creek Resort has taken more extreme measures. The water provider is in the second year of a moratorium on new construction because its wells are on the verge of running dry. Rumors fly of wealthy landowners growing impatient while they wait to break ground.

Wolf Creek attempted to ease the pressure by drilling a deeper well. It started pumping, only to cause a spring Eden Water Works depends on to stop flowing.

“It’s getting drier, the weather’s doing crazier things, and we keep allowing the building,” said Robert Thomas, the general manager at Wolf Creek. “You can only pump so much out of the ground and you’ll have issues. We’re starting to see it. We’re just the first ones.”

Jon Werner, board president for Eden Water Works, has a hunch the valley’s groundwater already has depleted “significantly” in the past 40 to 50 years. His water company, which has one of the valley’s older water rights, is in the process of negotiating a solution with Wolf Creek.

“If I’m troubled by anything, it’s the fact development continues in spite of the increasing shortage,” Werner said. “That’s complicated by the unpredictable weather, the droughts we seem to be in. How long will that last? Or will it get worse?”

Some water districts have increased their rates and required meters on secondary water. But to some water customers, Werner said, “money is no object.”

At Pineview West, the wells aren’t keeping up with summer demand, and Turner has to buy water from Ogden City instead.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction above Pineview Reservoir in Eden on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

“This guy was using 5,000 gallons a day to water his lawns,” Turner said, pointing to a sprawling 7,500-square-foot home built in 2017. “And he doesn’t even live here. It’s just insane.”

Just beyond those new homes, crews are installing infrastructure for new subdivisions, including the 600-acre Osprey Ranch luxury development to the north, which touts its “ranches” of between 3 and 19 acres. Directly downhill is Crimson Ridge Phase 2, where the developer has drilled a well a few hundred feet from one of West Pineview’s main water sources. Turner’s lawyers filed a protest against that well last year.

“You need to protest when they apply for it,” Turner said. “Because if you don’t, you’re kind of sunk. You just have no legal recourse.”

Scrambling for solutions

Oakley lies in the shadow of the Uinta Mountains, the headwaters of many rivers and streams in the basin. About 30 miles downriver sits Henefer, a popular launching spot for tubers and rafters. The Weber River flows through and connects the two cities, but both face water shortages because they rely on groundwater, in the form of wells or springs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The berms surrounding the baseball fields at the Oakley Rodeo Grounds and City Park are left unwatered as seen on Monday, June 21, 2021, in an effort to conserve dwindling water supplies. Oakley in Summit County has halted all building approvals and landscaping installations requiring new connections to city water due to extreme drought conditions in the area.

Older water rights, mostly on the Wasatch Front, lay claim to the surface water. So Oakley and Henefer residents watch it flow downstream, through their own communities, while they scramble in search of other solutions.

Water managers have placed their own moratoriums on buildings requiring new hookups — Henefer since 2018, and Oakley since last summer — to ensure they have enough water for current needs instead of squeezing that capacity for new developments amid the statewide drought.

“It’s not something we’d like to have,” said Henefer Mayor Kay Richins. “Some people think we’re trying to control the growth by having a moratorium, but that is not the truth.”

The town’s population of about 800 relies on two springs for indoor and outdoor watering. Richins hopes the building moratorium will be lifted next year, thanks to a $2.1 million loan the city received from the Division of Drinking Water to create a secondary water system drawing from Echo Reservoir.

The total project cost will hit around $4.6 million, according to Henefer’s application for the funds, but the city managed to secure another $2.5 million in federal grants to soften the blow.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People beat the heat as they float the Weber River between Henefer and Taggart Falls on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. The drought is putting a strain on available water from the river.

Still, Richins expects the average water bill to more than double in his town.

“Everyone’s water rates are going up,” Richins said. “They had to go up because we were told our water rates were too low, and if we didn’t raise our rates, we wouldn’t get the money.”

Oakley is looking at adding another well that’s bigger and deeper than its existing two.

“What this whole situation has done is basically put us on alert,” said Mayor Zane Woolstenhulme, “that what we’ve been taking for granted is an essential resource that we need to manage better going forward.”

Woolstenhulme said he has budgeted around $3.2 million for the new well, which will help serve the city’s 1,800 residents. For now, the mayor has planned for another year of restrictions. He expects the new well to come on line sometime next year.

But with well-drillers seeing more and more business as development skyrockets, many are booked out months in advance.

“It’s even busier now than ever,” said Robert Armstrong, who owns Armstrong Drilling and has drilled wells for about 38 years, “not really from the drought, but from just the building boom.”

Water exchanges

The Ogden Valley marks the spot where several creeks convene and form the Ogden River, a tributary of the Weber. Its population is also expected to swell from about 6,600 people in 2010 to 28,000 by 2060, according to a 2014 density study conducted by Weber County.

Like Oakley and Henefer in Summit County, many of the new communities in the Ogden Valley have junior water rights — if they have water rights at all. They, too, have tapped springs and groundwater instead of surface water to meet growing demand, as people seek new homes — and possibly second, third or fourth ones — in the mountains near the urban Wasatch Front.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A home under construction in the Reserve at Crimson Ridge, an Eden subdivision on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

For years, developers have made it work through water “exchanges” out of Pineview Reservoir. They show up at the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District offices, which manages water in the basin’s reservoirs, and tell the district how much they need. The district approves the application and releases the equivalent amount out of Pineview so it prevents conflicts downstream.

With Utah’s drought, limited water supplies and recent breakneck development, it might come as a shock to learn the district has never denied an exchange application.

No we haven’t,” confirmed Scott Paxman, Weber Basin Water’s general manager. “Yet.”

The exchange process becomes problematic when everyone is blindly sticking the same straw into the same underground supply, and the water released to compensate for those withdrawals is several hundred feet below, at the bottom of a reservoir.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction above Pineview Reservoir in Eden on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

“It’s really because the purpose of our district is to develop supply,” Paxman added, “and sustain a water supply for development.”

With building restrictions popping up across the district’s management area, however, the water supply certainly doesn’t seem sustainable. Still, previous managers, Paxman said, didn’t consider a day might come when they would have to hit the brakes on approvals for new water.

“But ... it’s facing us at this point, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s really tough to say we can go on forever, that there’s an endless supply of water.”

The district commissioned a study of Ogden Valley’s water supply and future demand last year, which will also explore solutions — like potentially consolidating the hodgepodge of small water companies pumping all the groundwater to subdivisions. The final report had a target release date of February 2022, but it has experienced delays. It has yet to be shared with the public.

In the meantime, “we’re pulling too much water out of the hill,” said Turner with West Pineview. “What’s the resolution to that? I’ll give you the answer: Everyone starts suing each other.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Peter Turner in the Reserve at Crimson Ridge, an Eden subdivision on Thursday, June 23, 2022.

West Pineview is no stranger to litigation. A nearby bed-and-breakfast and some neighboring homeowners took the water company to court, alleging its pumping had dropped the water table and put their own water rights out of reach of their shallower wells.

The case got dragged all the way up to the Utah Supreme Court. West Pineview ultimately prevailed, at least on the assertion that it was interfering with their neighbors’ wells, but several other aspects of the suit were remanded back to the district court in 2020. The case is ongoing, Turner said, and has cost around $200,000 in legal fees so far — a significant chunk of change for a small water company.

“So you go to court, you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ultimately someone’s assigned some blame or whatever,” Turner said. “But then we [still] all start chasing water down deeper and deeper and deeper to find it. And that probably is going to just play out all over the place because there just isn’t enough.”