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Utah waterways have quiet friends

Operating quietly out of headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City, one of the newest, best-financed and most autonomous public agencies in the country goes about its mission these days with little notice and not a lot of oversight.

The Utah Reclamation, Mitigation and Conservation Commission is a five-headed monster by some accounts, run by a quintet of presidential appointees who oversee a trust fund and annual congressional appropriations that, taken together, rival the budget of the very biggest divisions of state government.Established six years ago by Congress, the commission was granted what will amount to a $100 million, interest-bearing endowment by 2002. Yearly funding on top of that has totaled about $62 million so far and will add up to $170 million over the next 10 years or so.

It's a staggering amount, but it still is less than 15 percent of the price tag run up since the early 1950s for the dams, diversions and tunnels of the Central Utah Project.

The commission's mandate is to fix the environmental damage caused by years of misuse and abuse of northern Utah streams and wetlands. The arrangement was brokered by a rare deal between groups better known for fighting with each other.

Limited largely to work on five major watersheds, mitigation projects vary widely. They range from small-lake restoration in the High Uintas and grazing-damage rehabilitation in the Strawberry Valley to open space preservation along the Jordan River through metropolitan Salt Lake City and repairing fish and waterfowl habitat in Utah County.

A question commonly asked of executive director Mike Weland: "How did you get all that money?"

The answer is in the Central Utah Project Completion Act of 1992, which proffered almost $1 billion to finish the CUP's huge public works reworking that diverts water from the sparsely populated eastern side of the Wasatch Mountains to the urbanized western flank of the range.

The act also included requirements that certain important watersheds be repaired and reclaimed as part of the understanding, and it provided ample money to accomplish those objectives.

The pact would never have passed if not for broad, up-and-down-the-spectrum support. Then-U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, a staunch Republican, backed it influentially and so did Democratic former Rep. Wayne Owens. Fishermen, environmentalists, ranchers and big business supported the bill, too.

Part of the result was the creation of the mitigation commission, one of the most unusual agencies in America. Though it is a federal animal by definition, it is supervised by Utahns who serve as commissioners and are given broad authority to go forth and do good, although some claim disenchantment with a group they say is not as in touch with constituents as it ought to be.

"Until you get out a club and hit them over the head, you feel like you're just ignored," said Fred Reimherr, a member of the Stonefly Society. The fisherman's group has as its central agenda the preservation and restoration of coldwater streams in the Wasatch and Uinta mountains.

Reimherr believes the commission has been less than zealous in its solicitation of public input. As an instance, he cites the Salt Lake location of the commission. He says that's a gaffe that overlooks the common-sense advantage of putting offices in Heber City instead. The group's biggest restoration work will be done along the middle Provo River.

And he adds that the agency lumbers along in a tedious and paper-heavy fashion.

"I feel they've spent entirely too much money on study and research and plans," he said. "Not enough has been dedicated to actually doing anything on the ground."

"They're not doing as good a job of involving the public as they should," agreed Dan Potts, chairman of a consortium of special interests that lobbies under the umbrella of the Utah Outdoor Interests Coordinating Council. "They're just not very interested in what you think."

Potts said he reached that conclusion only after his group fought vehemently - and successfully - against construction of a dam in Spanish Fork Canyon. The dam's opponents believed it would do untold environmental damage.

Not even the commission's most vocal critics have offered anything near outright condemnation of the group, however, tempering their barbs with accolades for what the agency has managed to do so far and what it proposes to do in the next few years.

"I'm so happy I can't stand it," Potts says of the commission's crown jewel, the 10-mile-long restoration of the Provo River where it used to meander through Wasatch County between Jordanelle and Deer Creek reservoirs.

Long ago straightened, gutted and channelized by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the river will be, within the next five or six years, recipient of a $20 million to $30 million effort to restore it to its natural state.

Even Reimherr conceded some praise.

"On the positive side, I haven't seen them make a tragic mistake yet, and it's easy to make big mistakes in this area," he said. "The history of the Bureau (of Reclamation) is littered with those."

Weland and commission project manager Mark Holden respond to complaints such as Reimherr's and Potts' by noting the agency has strict, congressionally mandated guidelines on gathering public input and complying with a host of tangled environmental laws.

Holden said that of the money spent through Fiscal 1997, 48 percent went to land and water-rights acquisition, 39 percent was for construction and the relatively small share of 13 percent paid for studies and planning.

"Good planning is the very way you avoid tragic mistakes," he said.

Weland said the commission, on the other hand, has sometimes been criticized for collecting too much public comment.

"We do more than just about any other agency," he said.

"Time and time again as we've put these (projects) up for consideration, we send them out and we don't get any comment."

Naysayers aside, some outside the commission offer unqualified support.

"They've been very active and forthcoming with funds on wetlands issues around the Great Salt Lake," said Wayne Martinson, a spokesman for the Salt Lake chapter of the Audubon Society.

The commission has spent approximately $5 million in less than three years to restore waterfowl and shorebird habitat at a half-dozen sites around the lake, one of the most important migratory-bird stops in North America.

Even former high-ranking skeptics say the agency is following its broad mandate.

Utah Department of Natural Resources director Ted Stewart has backed off original doubts about the commission, once feared by some as yet another meddling federal bureaucracy.

"There have been a lot of people whom I respect - county commissioners and others whose counties are impacted - who are very positive about the activities," Stewart said.

He points, for example, to the $23 million the commission has earmarked for dismantling aged fish hatcheries and building new ones.

"Groundbreaking on one such project (for $5.3 million) in Kamas is scheduled for a few weeks from now. Weland mentions it as one of a long list of dozens of projects that are under way or already finished.

Little or no public attention has been paid to most of the work, Weland conceded, largely because the agency hasn't devoted much time to blowing its own horn.

"We just haven't had a chance to tell people what we're doing," Weland said.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Announcement Monday on middle Provo River

The Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission will announce its decision for restoring the middle Provo River during its monthly meeting on Monday at 1 p.m. at the Salt Lake Hilton. Commissioners will detail how the Provo River - between Jordanelle Dam and Deer Creek Reservoir - will be environmentally restored to offset substantial fish and wildlife habitat losses caused by construction and operation of the Central Utah Project.