Gehrke: Waging war over water in the Salt Lake canyons shouldn’t come down to brute politics

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

When Brigham Young led the pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley, an early priority was to protect the purity of the water that flowed out of the surrounding canyons, and that water feels like it’s been the source of political wars ever since.

The latest battle will play out in the Utah Legislature over the next nine days, as Salt Lake City tries to fend off Rep. Mike Noel and a handful of legislators and landowners intent on stripping the city of its ability to protect the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of Utahns.

Noel, R-Kanab, is doing the bidding of a group of frustrated land speculators who own dry land in the Cottonwoods and could make a fortune if only they could get the water to develop the property.

And we’re not talking about a rustic little cabin. There have been proposals for anything ranging from a cluster of cabins to a ski resort in the Cardiff Canyon area in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

What stands in their way is the city, which for 100 years has been given the power to limit development in the canyons, even though that land is outside the city limits, because the water that flows downstream is the lifeblood of the entire valley.

So these property owners went to court and lost, meaning their only recourse was to change the law. I wrote about the brewing battle last year, as work was already gearing up to co-opt a group of willing legislators, Noel chief among them.

Noel’s legislation would strip Salt Lake City of the vast majority of its authority in the canyons and allow significantly more development. It also would jeopardize the quality of water not just for Salt Lake City, but for all of the 350,000 Utahns who rely on the city’s water system.

Proponents of the bill, like the Utah Farm Bureau, argue the current statute gives Salt Lake City blanket authority to run ranchers off their land anywhere that the city can claim is a source of water, which would include any tributary to the Jordanelle Reservoir or Provo River, among others.

The problem is that nobody can point to a single instance in two centuries where Salt Lake City has done that, and the city says it has no intention of doing so.

It’s just one of a package of bills targeting Salt Lake City’s ability to preserve the canyons.

Noel is angry that the proposal from the collaborative Mountain Accord canyon planning process included protections on 8,000 acres of wilderness — because former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who sponsored the Mountain Accord legislation, is well known for being a bunny-loving rock-licker, I guess.

Nevermind. Noel has a bill that would prohibit public employees, from college professors to the Salt Lake City mayor, from advocating for any federal land designation without approval from a legislative committee.

Rep. Keven Stratton is proposing an amendment to the Utah Constitution to change the way Salt Lake City contracts with other cities to provide water. Rep. Kim Coleman has a bill that would force Salt Lake City to disclose how much it charges for water and the scope of the city’s water holdings — a transparency move that actually has some merit.

We should note that there are some who live in the Cottonwood canyons who have legitimate grievances with how the city has used its watershed protection powers. But the real force behind the changes comes from people like Evan Johnson, who has been at war with the city for years over his efforts to build in the canyons; Wayne Crawford, who battled the city in court over his bid to claim ownership of land in the canyons and then sell it off for a nice profit; and John Bennett, who used his position as chairman of the Quality Growth Commission to champion doing away with the city’s authority in the canyons until Gov. Gary Herbert relieved him of the post.

And then there’s Dave Robinson, who drew up a plan for major development in the canyon and has been intimately involved in drafting Noel’s legislation. Emails between Noel and Robinson show it was Robinson who signed off on the final drafts of Noel’s bill.

Robinson said he is not getting paid for his work (if he were being paid, he would have to register as a lobbyist, which he has not) and he doesn’t have any property or ownership interest in the canyons. He had a contract to purchase some property near Solitude, but it has lapsed.

“I’m not a lobbyist. I’ve never been a lobbyist. I’m not getting paid for this,” Robinson said. “These are items of interest to me.”

This is no way to make policy that could affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, whose district includes Little Cottonwood Canyon, wants to see a bill that is more narrowly tailored and protects the city’s authority and the people’s water.

“Salt Lake City has a duty to protect the watershed, but they must keep their politics out of that duty, because their politics have played into how they do watershed [protection] in the canyons, and that, I believe, is wrong,” he said. “But taking away their ability to protect the watershed is also wrong.”

What Niederhauser gets right is that this is a nuanced issue, one that requires balancing property interests against the public interest, that requires hydrology and careful attention to detail.

It’s an issue that needs more time and can’t be resolved in the remaining nine days of the legislative session. And most important, it’s an issue that shouldn’t simply be dictated by political power and vendettas.