Beaver County moves to enforce deal with its neighbor over groundwater pumping

Iron County wants to take billions of gallons of groundwater from Pine Valley, which sits in another county.

(Great Basin Water Network) Iron County water honchos plan to pump groundwater from Utah's Pine Valley, pictured here, and pipe it 66 miles from Beaver County to growing Cedar City. Beaver County officials are moving to block the project.

A simmering water war could be heading toward a boil in Utah’s West Desert, where an Iron County water district is looking to extract billions of gallons of groundwater in a neighboring rural county to sustain urban growth in Cedar City.

Central Iron County Water Conservancy District says safeguards will be in place to ensure its Pine Valley groundwater pumping project won’t harm surface water sources, but Beaver County leaders aren’t buying it.

Beaver has put the state on notice that it intends to file suit if the State Engineer, the bureau that oversees water rights, does not enforce key provisions of a legal settlement with the Iron County district concerning its claimed rights to 26,500 acre-feet of water under Pine and Wah Wah valleys.

In a letter sent Dec. 6 to Attorney General Sean Reyes, Beaver County Attorney Von Christiansen says the water district’s $260 million groundwater pumping and pipeline project, as described in a draft environmental review, has not identified measures that would ensure Pine Valley and adjoining basins aren’t left high and dry.

Meanwhile, new information developed by the U.S. Geological Survey casts doubt on how much water can be safely extracted from under Pine Valley. Its aquifers are fed by an arid region that receives only 6 inches of rain a year and are likely hydrologically connected to basins west into Nevada and as far north as Great Salt Lake, according to Beaver County Commission Chairman Mark Whitney.

“They had to monitor it. They had to manage it. And they had to mitigate their water usage in Iron County, and they’ve never done it. And the State Engineer has never enforced it,” said Whitney, who ranches near Milford.

Allied with Beaver County are Juab and Millard counties in Utah, Nevada’s White Pine County, the Great Basin Water Network and the Indian Peaks Band (IPB) of the Paiute Indian Tribe, which holds federally reserved water rights in Pine Valley. Tribal officials said they were not properly consulted by either the State Engineer or the water district.

“They are stealing our water for their project,” said Tamra Borchardt Slayton, the chairwoman of the Indian Peaks Band, or IPB. “This project is in direct violation of the federal government’s trust obligations to IPB. The state of Utah cannot allow this project to move forward.”

Beaver County officials have been contesting Iron County’s designs on Pine and Wah Wah valley groundwater for years — before the State Engineer and in court. The parties reached a 2019 legal settlement giving the water district the right to withdraw 26,500 acre-feet of water a year while reserving some for use in Beaver County.

This deal requires Iron County to submit a monitoring and mitigation plan, but the Beaver County letter alleges the plan falls short. Consequently, Beaver will sue the state and the water district as early as Jan. 5 unless the State Engineer initiates a public process to review the adequacy of the monitoring plan.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Behind the dispute is the Iron County district’s reliance on groundwater to meet the needs of fast-growing Cedar City. In past years, the district has been drawing more water from under Cedar Valley than is being replenished, a practice known as groundwater mining. The water deficit is so severe that land is sinking in places. The district’s controversial solution proposes a network of wells and pipelines that would extract water from Pine Valley and move it 66 miles south to Cedar City.

“They were wanting to mine our water to pipe it to Iron County when they had [other] sources,” Whitney said. “They could have went to Parowan and bought up farmland. … I don’t like to see the family farms go away, but with growth, you have to sacrifice something, like they’ve done in the Salt Lake Valley. If they want to continue to grow, they need to face those consequences basically do the same. Don’t come to your neighbor and steal their water.”

Iron County water officials, however, contend the Pine Valley proposal already features various safeguards to protect the interests of other stakeholders and they will likely get more protective as the project nears approval. Beaver’s objections are “misguided” and “premature,” said the water district’s general manager, Paul Monroe.

“We have to have this [monitoring] plan in place, before water is taken out,” he said. “There’s kind of a double layer of insurance. We have to reduce pumping if it proves that the [water] source is not there.”

And there’s the rub. How much groundwater is available for “safe” withdrawal under Pine Valley is not exactly known. Beaver County and its allies say new data indicate it may be far less than the amount that has been awarded. Accordingly, they insist the State Engineer reevaluate the volume of water Iron County may take.

“Once you start pumping water [from the ground], and once you start draining an aquifer, it’s like a train leaving the station. You don’t stop it,” Whitney said. “The thing is that before you can finally detect the real damage, the damage is already done and it’s irrevocable.”

But Monroe said his district has assembled a monitoring program involving a network of wells, meters to measure surface flows at springs and aerial photography.

Under an ongoing environmental impact statement, the Bureau of Land Management is analyzing this monitoring program along with a related mitigation plan to make sure problems are detected early and addressed before existing water users are affected, according to Monroe.

“And if we do impair or impact somebody, then there is state law, and there are things that we’re committed to doing to make people whole,” he said.

He noted that under Western water law, the right to water does not belong to the counties where it is found, but to whoever puts it to beneficial use first. In this case, he said, Iron County was the first to propose using Pine and Wah Wah valleys’ groundwater.

Beaver County ranchers, and Native Americans before them, however, have long relied on springs that are likely connected to groundwater sources. Officials fear if those springs disappear because of Iron’s project, they may never come back and the remote desert valleys could become uninhabitable for people and wildlife.

“We’ve got to protect that aquifer out there,” Whitney said. “We’re just making them live up to the agreement.”