Neither side got everything it wanted.
But they stayed out of court and in the good graces of Congress, which turned out to be the primary incentive for Millard County and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District coming to terms over the county's petition to leave the district.A pact allowing Millard County to withdraw from the district and receive a refund of this year's Central Utah Project tax assessment was approved by the district's board Wednesday.
"We would have liked to have gotten out sooner and with more money. But we are glad we did it without litigation," Millard County Commissioner Lana Moon told the board.
Nearly a year ago, Millard County residents voted overwhelmingly to leave the district and CUP water for which they had paid a portion of their property taxes over the past 25 years. County officials believed that recent changes in the CUP jeopardized Millard's water rights to the Sevier River and made the 36,000 acre-feet of promised water too expensive.
Under federal and state law, a county can pull out of a water district. But the water district has the final say, and the Central Utah district didn't want to lose Millard County. The county contributed more than $1 million a year in tax revenue to the district and is a critical cog to water development in the Sevier Basin.
But district General Manager Don Christiansen said his agency will survive the financial loss. "That really wasn't the issue. The issue was, we believed the (CUP) could provide benefits to future generations in Millard County and the Sevier Basin. That's why we fought so hard to keep them in," Christiansen said.
Board member Tom Hatch, Panguitch, vigorously made that point before the board vote. He disagreed with Chairman Gary Palmer's assessment that Millard County's withdrawal would not affect other counties in the district.
"Anyone in their right frame of mind can't swallow that," he said.
Garfield, Piute and Sanpete counties, which Hatch represents on the board, have argued that without Millard County in the district, any future water development in the area is impossible.
Hatch accused district leaders of "greasing" approval of the agreement, and he wanted more than "30 seconds" to study it before voting.
But Palmer said the issue had been studied enough and the board's job was to support what district lawyers negotiated. "This is the best agreement we are going to get. We could study this until hell freezes over and it won't get any better," he said.
The Bureau of Reclamation has agreed to the settlement "in concept," Palmer said. The document must now be ratified by the 4th District Court.
Palmer credited Utah's Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett with keeping the two sides at the table. The senators' aides forced the two sides to hammer out a settlement over the past six weeks, warning that a court battle would cost taxpayers and jeopardize future federal CUP funding.
The threats were enough to get the district to back down from its claim that Millard County must pay $9.9 million in costs and benefits to pull out. And Millard County ended up slashing nearly $6 million from its refund demands.
Under terms of the agreement, the district will refund Millard County's 1994 tax contribution, estimated at $1.2 million. The past financial slate is wiped clean and Millard can develop its water resources on its own.
The settlement says the district cannot cut a better deal with another county wishing to leave than the one it made with Millard County. Negotiations with Sevier County, whose residents also voted to withdraw, are ongoing.