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FEDERAL OFFICIALS WITHDRAW BID FOR MORE WATER AT BIRD REFUGE

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has withdrawn its bid for more Bear River water for its bird refuge near Brigham City.

An agreement struck last week calls for continued talks between federal and state water officials to find a way to meet future water needs of the Service's Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the growing Wasatch Front.Gov. Mike Leavitt hailed the temporary settlement as "a clear victory over the federal government for Utah and the surrounding states."

"There was absolutely no justification or legal basis for the federal government's attempt to usurp a tremendous amount of our water."

Meanwhile, federal officials are confident the refuge's water needs will be met.

"I believe we can reach a resolution," FWS field supervisor Clark D. Johnson said. "But if we can't, we will revisit our reserved water right claim."

The refuge has water rights to 350,000 acre-feet of Bear River water. But in an ongoing court adjudication of the river, the FWS applied for 481,432 acre feet in February.

Under the federal reserved water right doctrine, the agency maintained the extra water was reserved for the refuge's use when Congress created the facility in 1928. The additional 131,000 acre-feet of water would flush ponds and marshes on the refuge to prevent botulism, which can kill thousands of birds, and remove salt so waterfowl can find food.

The new water claim shocked state and northern Utah water officials, who said the refuge's request was excessive and could kill a plan to capture the Bear River's unused water in a series of new dams. That water would be used to aid growth in the Cache Valley and Wasatch Front as far south as Salt Lake County.

Prior to Tuesday's agreement, Leavitt and the governors of Idaho and Wyoming had rallied to fight the filing.

Utah maintained the FWS did not have reserved water rights and questioned whether the government had clear title to the property. Ninety percent of the refuge lies below the meander line of the Great Salt Lake, an area owned by the state of Utah. Although evidence suggests the state once intended to deed the land to the government, no deed of conveyance has been found.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, then joined the fray in June, threatening to withdraw his support for funding the refuge's planned expansion unless the FWS withdrew its application.

After several meetings with state water officials, the FWS agreed to put its application on hold to pursue other alternatives of meeting its water needs, Johnson said.

State Department of Natural Resources director Ted Stewart predicted state and federal officials will be able to work out a deal that allows the refuge to operate efficiently with its existing supplies, eliminating the need for the extra water.

"We agreed to work together to find a solution," said Stewart, saying a task force is being formed. "Now through October we will work to refine the existing needs of the refuge and then define how we will meet those needs."

Associated Press contributed to this story.