It's said that God created only enough water in Utah to fight over. But state and federal officials think they've avoided a potentially huge legal war over the Virgin River.
They presented Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt with a plan Thursday designed to ensure that Zion National Park has the water it needs to protect its environment and still allow additional development of Virgin River water for fast-growing southern Utah."The proposal that has been made by the state of Utah has the ingredients of a major success for everyone," Babbitt told the Deseret News after a briefing on the plan - but he added that some loose ends remain to be resolved.
"It is a win-win process that says we can provide more protection at Zion National Park, and at the same time design an approach to water supply that will meet the anticipated needs of one of the very high-growth areas in Utah and the West," he said.
The complex proposal calls for dropping plans for a reservoir just upstream from Zion, which officials worried might harm needed flows in the park; for land exchanges to allow a different reservoir and other projects downstream; and for limits on upstream and groundwater development near the park.
But it would also ensure a certain amount of development of water near the park - and would force the federal government to provide other water if its actions ever decrease that amount.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who arranged the meeting with Babbitt, said the proposal may be a model on how to resolve similar battles over water for other national parks, forests and land in Utah and the West without going to court.
Ted Stewart, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said, "Elsewhere in the West these things have been fought at great expense, sometimes with lawsuits (costs) culminating to $10 million."
Wanting to avoid that - and to avoid giving final control of any settlement to a judge - state, local and federal officials began to negotiate a settlement in 1992, and did it in some new ways.
State Engineer Bob Morgan said the normal approach would have been to try to figure out exactly how much water Zion was entitled to legally, which he said is subjective and requires much expensive study.
Instead, he said negotiators tried "to identify blocks of water that could be developed above the park (without harming it). Then all remaining water would go to satisfy the park's reserved water right claims."
As Stewart said, "We've gone in kind of a backwards fashion." But that helped them to work out some complex disagreements.
For example, the Washington County Water Conservancy District had proposed the new "Bullock Reservoir" just outside park boundaries on the Upper North Fork Virgin River. Park officials worried it would hurt needed flows in Zion.
Negotiators found a compromise to call off plans for it in exchange for federal help to trade the Bullock site for an alternative "Sand Hollow" reservoir site near St. George. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, has already been pushing legislation to allow such a land trade.
The proposal also outlines how much water could be developed upstream - and what the federal government offers in exchange for such limits.
For example, it calls for developing up to no more than 6,000 acre-feet per year from the North Fork Virgin River and the tributaries of Ash, LaVerkin, North and Shunes creeks - in other words, allowing some development but not enough to hurt the park.
It calls for developing a total of up to 5,000 acre-feet a year from the Easy Fork Virgin River - with no more than 12 new reservoirs in the area having a capacity of more than 20 acre-feet, which is small.
And it calls for limiting groundwater development up gradient and within two miles of the park to no more than 35 gallons per minute, and no more than 15 acre-feet per year per well.
The proposal calls for enlarging storage at Kolob Reservoir on Kolob Creek by no more than 4,000 acre-feet, and outlines minimum required flows on some streams.
Ron Thompson, executive director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said his agency can live with the proposal, and it should help provide water it needs for growth. Kane County officials have warned they still have some concerns.
While water is important everywhere in the West, it is critical around St. George where growth has been booming. Washington County's population has tripled in the past 20 years.
Babbitt said he wants to bring the deal to a close, and will appoint someone from his office to act on behalf of all federal agencies to resolve remaining differences.