Apparently the heavens have conspired against damming the Sevier River's headwaters, given its history of setbacks.

Over the past 70 years, supporters of such a project have argued before the Utah Supreme Court three times and enlisted the aid of Congress once, only to end up with permission to put up a dam, but no water to store behind it.Even when local water bosses could dam the Sevier - near the turn of the century, when downstream opposition had no legal clout - their three attempts failed. The last Hatch Town Dam crumbled in 1914, weakened by a dynamite blast intended to jar open the jammed floodgates of the earthen structure.

All that's left today of Hatch Town Dam is a catwalk of rotting timbers spanning the old lava-rock spillway. Remnants of the 60-foot-high wall are covered with brush and grass, blending in with the hills on either side of the river that gently meanders by.

But Garfield County residents don't want a dismal past to dictate the future. Within the next month, another application will be filed with the state engineer to create a reservoir impounding 4 billion gallons of the Sevier River at its headwaters, where Asay and Mammoth creeks converge.

If the past is any indication, the application will likely ignite protests and could mean another lengthy trip through the court system. But Garfield County Commissioner Tom Hatch believes that's no reason to give up on a project that would attract tourist dollars and give local farmers a more stable water supply.

"If people quit every time someone said, `No,' there wouldn't be many projects finished in the world, would there?" said Hatch, whose great grandfather founded this town south of Panguitch on U.S. 89.

Cows can't drink

Hatch said he's heard about Hatch Town Dam "as long as I've understood the English language."

So have the dam's opponents.

The project's past and present life embodies one of the longest-running water wars in the state, fought over a river that feeds the farmlands of five rural Utah counties. It has pitted upper-river and lower-river water users, with the battle line drawn at the Piute County-Sevier County border.

Animosity and mistrust between the twocamps can be traced to a 1936 document called the Cox Decree - a 232-page book written by state district Judge LeRoy H. Cox in Sevier County.

The result of a water-rights lawsuit between two Sevier Valley farmers in the 1920s, the decree rules the river by detailing the use of practically every drop of Sevier River water.

"The first time you read the decree, you think Judge Cox was crazy," said state engineer Bob Morgan, who must use the decree to settle disputes among water users. "But the more you work with it, the more you appreciate it."

It constructs an intricate arrangement of water rights along a river that is emptied at several locations into canals leading to farm fields. After irrigating crops, the water percolates into the groundwater table and flows back to the river. The return flow regimen lets the same water be used and reused six to eight times along the river's 235-mile journey from Hatch to Delta.

Cox was so thorough in divvying up the water that "some have joked that a cow can't drink out of the river legally," said Layton Barney, who possesses a tattered copy of the decree he often turns to as secretary of the Hatch Town Irrigation Co.

Barney and others on the upper end of the river contend the decree gives more clout to downstream users. But Morgan said that's merely a perception created by the lower-river users' vigilance in protecting their rights, which are based entirely on the return flows of water diverted upstream.

The slightest change in how someone uses his water upstream routinely triggers formal protests and threats of legal action from Millard County users at the end of the river.

But the lower-river users make no apologies for their dogged defense of their water supply. "What you need to remember is you have to be an upper-river user to steal water on any river," said Thorpe Waddingham, a Millard County water attorney who, for several decades, has led the lower-river users' quest to challenge and kill any perceivable threat to their water.

No give, no take

Hatch Town Dam has long been considered such a threat, primarily because it wasn't there when the Cox Decree was drafted.

"The decree is the only thing that protects our rights, and once you breach it, the system falls apart," Waddingham said.

That's what the Utah Supreme Court ruled in an early 1950s decision over Hatch Town. The high court said the dam would be legal if it didn't upset the historical operation of the river outlined in the Cox Decree.

The easiest way to get around that requirement would be to put more water in the river. And that was the plan when the Sevier River counties joined the massive Central Utah Project in the 1960s. A portion of CUP water collected and moved through a vast system of northeastern Utah reservoirs and aqueducts would be piped into central Utah's Sevier Bridge Reservoir, giving the lower-river users enough water to offset the amount stored upstream behind a Hatch Town dam.

But the lower-river users scuttled that plan just when it looked like it was going to work. Last year, after Congress had authorized funding for the project, Millard County decided to pull out of the CUP, citing the strict financial and environmental conditions the government had attached to the water.

Without Millard County involved there was no place to pipe the extra CUP water into the Sevier River, because Sevier Bridge Reservoir is owned by several Millard water companies that wanted no part of deal.

Frustrated by the setback but undaunted in his resolve to get a dam built, Hatch, who also sits on the CUP board, had project engineers examine other possibilities. The latest proposal is a result of that study.

The plan, he said, proposes water users in Garfield and Piute counties forego diverting irrigation water out of the Sevier for a combined total of four weeks in the spring and fall. That water would run down the river to Piute and Sevier Bridge reservoirs, which store water for the lower-river users. In exchange, that same amount of water could collect behind Hatch Town dam during the winter or early spring, when no one is irrigating.

Hatch contends no one would be hurt by the arrangement, but, as expected, lower-river users are suspect. They fear losing their water to evaporation on the proposed reservoir. They also worry about how annual diversions of water into a reservoir will affect the timing of return flows downstream. And they don't believe the upper-river users, which are allowed to divert large amounts of water anyway in early spring, are giving up enough in the deal.

"But that's the history of the Sevier River - nobody has been willing to give up anything," said Roger Walker, a former lower Sevier River commissioner.

Enviros not welcome

Fear of Hatch Town dam messing up the river's operation, however, isn't the only thing galvanizing the opposition. The project would also invite environmental scrutiny of the river because the dam would be built with federal CUP funding.

Anyone who has attempted water conservation along the Sevier River can attest that environmentalists are not welcome there.

Kenley Brunsdale, now a lawyer in Denver, has vivid memories of his trip to Richfield in the late 1980s to meet with water users. He represented former Utah Congressman Wayne Owens and discussed the Hatch Town proposal and water-conservation measures outlined for the river under the CUP.

"The meeting was held in a Mormon chapel and they opened it with a prayer asking God to help Wayne Owens' environmentalist to see the error in his ways," Bruns-dale recalled. "I opened my eyes and started marking the exits on my pad of paper. It was the most solemn church meeting I had ever been to."

Some conservation measures, such as sprinkler irrigation and canal lining, have been implemented by individual land owners along the Sevier over the protests of lower-river users.

But a full-fledged environmental impact study of endangered species and stream flows and the ensuing regulations, which Hatch Town would require, has never taken place. And most farmers want it to stay that way.

"People are going to fight Hatch Town just because it gives environmentalists a foot in the door," said Clark Wall of the Piute Irrigation Company in Richfield.

Shared dream

Hatch also holds his nose at the thought of an environmental study of the area. But he said environmental compliance is simply a fact of life today, which he accepts in exchange for a reservoir and its economic benefits.

With the local timber industry in decline, Garfield County is turning to tourism for its tax base. "Hatch Town dam is looked at as much as a recreation site that would boost our economy as it is an irrigation facility," Hatch said.

His hope is for a dam and reservoir that will attract boaters, anglers and vacation-home developments.

And if Morgan, the state engineer who will decide the fate of Hatch Town dam, doesn't like the idea?

"We can live with that. All we are asking for is his opinion to get it off dead center," Hatch said. "Maybe someone tomorrow will come up with a better solution."

Morgan is careful not to speculate about the chances of Hatch Town Dam being built. But what he does offer isn't hopeful, considering how water users along the Sevier River have resisted change or compromise:

"Hatch Town is not an impossible dream, but it's a dream everyone (along the river) would have to share. You can't draw a line in the sand and say, `I can't trust you.' It has to be a dream of everyone."