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Uinta Basin weighs water-storage options

DUCHESNE -- The Ute Indian Tribe's unexpected withdrawal of support for federally funded water storage facilities and other water-related projects in Duchesne and Uintah counties, may not prove to be the demise of water storage development in the Uinta Basin.

Secondary-water users, irrigation companies, the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and the Duchesne County Water Conservancy District are evaluating options to build smaller dams off the reservation with the federal money that has already been allocated for the projects.The concept is still in the early stages, but Randy Crozier, manager for the Duchesne County Water Conservancy District, says water users want a project of some kind and are in the process of determining how to approach "down-sized versions" of the dams originally planned to be built on Ute Tribal land on the Uinta River and on the Yellowstone River. Both locations are in Duchesne County.

The Uinta Unit Replacement Project, which would have dammed the Uinta River, was the first slated for construction. It proposed to develop new water supplies for irrigation of Indian and non-Indian lands, enhance recreational opportunities, benefit wildlife and provide flood control benefits.

After months of cooperative negotiations to revive the Uintah Unit Replacement of the Central Utah Project Completion Act -- which appeared doomed a year ago when the Ute Tribe suddenly withdrew its support -- the tribe's governing Business Committee again backed out of an agreement last month, just days before it was to be signed and submitted to the Department of Interior.

In rejecting the agreement, the Business Committee issued a three-sentence letter saying that after extensive debate and consideration of the tribe's interest it decided not to proceed with the project.

Preliminary work on the replacement projects has spanned seven years and cost more than $12 million. Federal funds for the water storage projects were closely tied to the tribe's participation in the project. Construction of the dams seemed dependent on construction of the dams on tribal lands, but money may still be available for water projects even if they aren't built on the reservation, Crozier said.

"We don't know how much storage we would need, or where the reservoirs or other projects would be located. We realize they would need to be down-sized to be economically feasible. We know we want to pursue projects of some kind, and we're in the process of evaluating them," Crozier said.

Crozier said planning efforts won't have to start from ground zero. Various dam sites -- both on and off tribal lands -- have been studied extensively by water consultants and engineers.

"From the water users standpoint a reservoir on the Uinta River is the number one priority, followed by a small one on the Yellowstone River," Crozier detailed.

Plans will be dependent on the amount of federal funds that can still be allocated to the projects, but Crozier says he's optimistic that funding will be available. More information on funding possibilities will be known in the near future, he said.

Promises of federal funding for water storage projects in the Uinta Basin were included in the Central Utah Project Completion Act.

Irrigation companies on the Uinta River, the Associated Water Users, Dry Gulch Irrigation and Moon Lake Water Users have already sent letters of support for plans to move ahead and build water storage projects without the tribe. The U.S. Forest Service, State of Utah and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District have also said they would be willing to examine the alternatives with the secondary-water users who have waited decades for promised water storage facilities.