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Little-known court order may force Utah Lake to rise higher and higher

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LEHI — A nearly-forgotten court order from 1985 may force the waters of Utah Lake to rise higher than they have in a quarter-century.

The lake is already unusually high, and it's edging onto surrounding private property. But in coming weeks, it's likely to go even higher because the court order places a limit on the flow of the Jordan River.

In essence, the court order trades off flooding in one area in favor of flooding in another.

A crucial measurement is made at the point where the Jordan River flows northward under 2100 South in Salt Lake City. If the flow rises to 3,400 cubic feet per second, state officials are required to stop it from rising further. And that will push Utah Lake even higher.

"The court order tells me that I need to do that," said Kent Jones, Utah's state engineer.

As flood threats go, it's not the most significant worry in the state. But the situation illustrates how officials are trying to juggle huge volumes of water in various waterways and reservoirs in an effort to get snow out of the mountains with as little damage as possible. That task can be a difficult one since decisions have to be made in a complex legal framework designed to protect conflicting interests.

The Jordan River is a small piece of the puzzle, but in this case state officials say they have no flexibility.

Most of the water in the Jordan River comes from Utah Lake. Control gates at the lake's north end are currently wide open. The flow of the Jordan at the Salt Lake City measurement point is currently 2,130 cfs, well below the legal limit. During a recent warm period, though, melting snow entering Utah Lake and exiting through the gates pushed the Jordan's flow to almost 3,000 cfs. A few days with temperatures in the 80s and 90s could easily push the flow to 3,400 cfs, putting the court order front-and-center for the first time in 26 years.

Many landowners and even water officials are unaware of the court order, Jones said. It was issued in the 1980s when there was a big mountain snowpack. Utah Lake property owners got into a court battle with Jordan River property owners and water-users, and the result was a negotiated court-approved settlement that dictates a compromise between lake levels and a limit on river flows.

"And I think that was a good compromise and I think it's going to work fairly well," Jones said, "trying to balance the protection to the landowners around Utah Lake while still giving protection to the landowners along the Jordan River."

The lake is currently 1.7 feet above the compromise level agreed to in 1985, but that limit is trumped by the limit on flows in the Jordan River. If the gates are closed to stop the river from rising, Utah Lake could rise another 2 feet.

Many farms and ranches bordering the lake in Utah County could lose acreage. But the tradeoff is less flooding along the river in Salt Lake County.

The lake's rising surface has already inched its way past the fence-line of Stan Robert's yard in a Saratoga Springs subdivision.

"This is the highest I've ever seen the lake level," Roberts said. "In fact, it's coming up into the lawn area. It's infiltrated the lawn. And so it's a little swampy down there below."

Roberts' home, though, is at least 20 feet higher than any conceivable rise of the lake. "Not a worry," he said. "Not to me."

Jones, whose job as state engineer makes him one of the most important water officials in the state, has a generally optimistic view about the flooding picture statewide. He believes many lessons were learned during the high-water years of the 1980s and a huge amount of planning and preparation have set the state up for success in handling the snow-melt.

"I am quite confident that we're going to be able to get through this," Jones said. "I think we will see some problems, but I don't think it's going to be overly serious."

Email: hollenhorst@desnews.com