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State water engineer awash in worries

Olds seeks greater flexibility in deciding pumping priorities

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Anyone who has ever balanced a checkbook knows you're in big trouble if you spend more money than what comes into the bank account.

But that basic principle has apparently been lost on some Utah water managers, who have been sucking the groundwater at a rate much faster than it is replenished. And that has state water engineer Jerry Olds proposing some changes giving him much clearer authority to decide who gets the water and in what priority.

"This problem has been going on a number of years," Olds told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Wednesday. "Rather than tying this up in litigation for 10 years, I am looking for guidance from the Legislature."

How bad is the situation? In Salt Lake County, water engineers have determined that 165,000 acre-feet of water can be extracted from underground aquifers every year without endangering the quality of the source.

But with all the water rights out there, as much as 400,000 acre-feet could be pumped every year.

"There's no doubt the system is over-appropriated," Olds said.

Rural areas of the state are facing the same problems of over-appropriation of underground water. In the Enterprise area of southwestern Utah, the annual amount of water that can be removed safely is 33,000 acre-feet. Since 1993, the withdrawals have averaged 82,000 acre-feet.

An acre-foot of water, the standard measurement used by water officials, is the amount needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. Each acre-foot of water is the amount needed to meet the needs of a family of four for a year.

By pumping too much water, not only does the natural system not replenish itself completely, but the quality of the water deteriorates, Olds explained.

Currently, the state engineer determines who has priority rights, a system based largely on "first in time, first in right." Olds does not want to change that time-honored system. But he wants greater flexibility in determining how much water can be sucked from wells.

Olds' plan would protect in-house domestic water.

"I did not want to shut off the 80-year-old couple and say they no longer can take water," he told lawmakers.

Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, questioned the wisdom of a policy that favored residential use over agriculture, wondering if it was "based on voters per acre-foot."

County commissioners from southern Utah told lawmakers not to overreact and that additional water can be had from Lake Powell.

"If you remove 60 percent of the water rights, it would be a total disaster in Iron County," said Iron County Commissioner Dennis Stowell.

E-mail: donna@desnews.com