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`SWAMP' LOOKS MIGHTY FINE TO THIRSTY UTAHNS

Long maligned as a desert swamp with dirty, wind-whipped water fit only for farm land, Utah Lake has become a hot commodity destined for culinary stature.

The same water rights that traded for $25 an acre-foot out of the lake five years ago have shot up to near $300.The increase is due entirely to demands posed by impending development on the Wasatch Front - a trend marked most notably of late by Boise-based Micron Technology's announcement that it will build a 3,500-employee computer-chip factory on the north edge of Utah Lake.

"Suddenly, it's one of the last watering holes," said Bob Morgan, director of the state Division of Water Rights, which oversees the ever-complicated realm of water ownership in Utah.

Micron's arrival comes at a time when the state's two most populous counties - Salt Lake and Utah - have no more mountain-stream tapwater sources of the kind they have almost exclusively relied on for well over a century. That's despite state projections that the combined population of the counties will increase by 200,000 in 20 years to 1.3 million people.

"All the easy water's gone," conceded David G. Ovard, general manager of the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District, which supplies most of the west side of the Salt Lake Valley.

Water once worth very little, to put it another way, is today worth a lot.

That means it's time, say Ovard and others, to think about tapping Utah Lake, a shallow, natural reservoir that is said to be as much as 40 feet deep in places, though some water experts doubt it.

The lake is closer to 10 or 15 feet deep across most of its warm, algae-infested expanse. An oblong body that runs along the west side of I-15 from Lehi to Payson, it historically has been regarded strictly as a source of irrigation water because it carries 300 to 400 parts per million of suspended effluent.

Though it lies entirely in Utah County, there exists considerable interest elsewhere in its fate, particularly on the west side of Salt Lake County, where water demand is fast exceeding supply. Claimed early in the state's history by Mormon settlers, most of the lake's rights have long been owned by individuals, water districts and irrigation companies in Salt Lake County.

Four major canals run north from its shores into a once-rural valley that over the past generation has seen shopping malls and suburbs supplant fields. Water demands have shifted accordingly.

Case in point? The East Jordan Irrigation Co., which for generations irrigated hay stands and beet farms from Draper through Sandy into the Midvale area. But earlier this year it sold 50 of its shares to an unnamed Utah County developer for $1,400 apiece. The sale came at a time when the market price had for some time been around $400 per share.

Each share represented rights to 4.86 acre-feet, enough to supply five households for a year. The transaction - whose price per share translated to $288 per acre-foot - wasn't enormous by water-commerce standards.

But it was noteworthy for the price precedent it set, signifying perhaps the birth of a speculation-driven market for Utah Lake water. In its raw form, the East Jordan Irrigation Co. water went for about what treated culinary water sells for in urban Salt Lake Valley.

Development is the reason.

"Since the Micron thing hit, everybody wants to develop satellite industries or build houses in the area," said Morgan.

Micron's project is possible only because the company bought a Utah County orchard that includes rights to underground seepage.

But water remains the obstacle to many other development dreams in the area. Utah County's subterranean aquifers are already spoken for, but if builders without water can get lake rights from Salt Lake County irrigation companies, they can trade them - probably with cash - for rights to groundwater sources that feed the lake.

Analysts say there is still enough irrigation demand in Utah County to make such swaps feasible.

Tapwater requirements, in the meantime, will likely force Wasatch Front users to begin the expensive process of treating the lake's water. It would be cheaper in the long run than trying to develop the Bear River, the region's last available mountain-water source and one that is accessible only through a half-billion dollar project that would require building a dam and a 50-mile-long pipeline.

"Utah Lake's going to have to be a viable culinary source someday," said David B. Gardner, a state water official responsible for supervising its distribution.

Someday is sooner than some think, said Ovard.

"We plan to treat it, and the technology will be available in five or 10 years," he said. "It'll be as good a quality as any."