Washington • The Interior Department will transfer two water projects to local Utah agencies as part of an effort to shed some of the federal government’s holdings in the West, a move heralded by members of Congress from the state but jeered by environmental groups.
The projects, one in Emery County and another in the Uinta Basin, will be handed over to water associations in those counties and include dams, canals and reservoirs. In total, the federal government will cede more than 1,100 acres as part of the deal, the first transfer under a law passed by Congress in 2019.
“With these transfers, the Emery County and Moon Lake water districts now have the autonomy to manage their own water resources – which is great news for Emery County and the Uintah Basin," said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. "We need more of this kind of local control, and I will continue pushing to return the decision making and management of our natural resources to the Utahns who are closest to them.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who blocked the bill in 2018 and later voted against the legislation that included these provisions, touted: “It’s not every day that the federal government gives land back to local governments.“
“But I’m excited to say that we’re now 90 days away from such a major miracle really becoming reality,” Lee said. "For far too long, we’ve had local communities deprived of the right to own and control can manage these projects that are essential to the life of their respective communities.”
Lee said that ratepayers in the areas of the water projects have paid for them and “just as a bank should transfer title to the home after the homeowner has fully paid off his loan” the government should be giving the local officials the title to the projects."
He added: “It’s far past time for the federal government to transfer title to these these responsible and very accountable, very capable local water districts."
If Congress doesn't object to the transfer by passing a resolution disapproving of the move, the projects will be in local hands in 90 days, the Interior Department said.
The Emery County Project — which includes diversion dams, canals and other water facilities — will become property of the Emery County Water Conservancy District. The transfer of 1,104 acres of federal land involves the Joes Valley and Huntington North dams and reservoirs, Swasey Diversion Dam, Cottonwood Creek-Huntington Canal, Huntington North Service and Feeder canals and evacuation pipeline and Upper Lakes Reservoir.
The Uinta Basin Replacement Projects will be handed over to the Moon Lake Water Users Association and totals 14.7 acres being transferred and another 980 acres of easements. That includes the Big Sand Wash Feeder Diversion and Pipeline, Big Sand Wash Reservoir enlargement and Big Sand Wash Roosevelt Pipeline.
“This title transfer provides great opportunities for the future of the Uinta Basin here in Utah and increases the stability of agricultural and other industries in the area,” Moon Lake Water Users Association General Manager Dex Winterton said in a statement.
But while local officials welcomed the move by the feds, others raised concerns that the Trump administration was continuing to find ways to hand over public lands and didn’t take into consideration others who rely on the water projects.
"President Trump’s dream team of corruption at Interior just opened the flood gates to the wholesale transfer of federal public assets, including public lands, to narrow special interests that will remove important protections and backstops like public notification and public comment periods by waiving basic environmental reviews,” said Jayson O’Neill, director of Western Values Project, a subsidiary of the left-leaning watchdog Accountability.US. “Transferring title to interests that have little incentive to consider all the downstream users and the long-term impacts of their decisions is shortsighted, to say the least.”
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, defended the moves, arguing that the transfers are “no-brainers” that have support of federal and local officials.
He also praised the law — the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, named after the late Michigan congressman and passed by overwhelming votes in the House and Senate — that allowed the sped-up transfer. Previously, such land transfers had to be approved by Congress but the new process only requires Congress to object.
“Until Congress passed the lands package early last year, these straightforward transfers would literally take an act of Congress. It was time consuming and unnecessary,” Bishop said. “The Big Sand Wash [Moon Lake] and Emery County Project title transfers will remove federal costs and liability, increase local control, improve stewardship and reduce an already over-burdened federal estate.”