This article is published through the Colorado River Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative supported by the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air at Utah State University. See all of our stories about how Utahns are impacted by the Colorado River at greatsaltlakenews.org.

Utah’s Wild West is no stranger to land conflicts. Unlike the days of the American frontier, we are no longer heading into physical combat for land control — that’s not to say it’s any less hostile.

Moab, Utah, located on the doorstep of Arches National Park, has approximately 5,300 year-round residents. The small town has seen more commercial development take over its local flair in recent years as tourism continues to grow annually.

With five national parks in the state, Utah’s park visitation saw more than 10.5 million visitors in 2023, according to the Kem C. Garder Policy Institute. Visitors often forget or may not even realize that outside of peak visitation season, people call these breathtaking landscapes home year-round.

Moab locals vs. commercial development

Arguably, one of the most controversial landscape disputes in the state currently is between the citizens of Moab and commercial developers.

The Kane Creek development in Moab involves approximately 580 residential and commercial units spread over 180 acres along Kane Creek Boulevard and up against the Colorado River.

The development, managed by Kane Creek Preservation and Development LLC, aims to provide housing and economic diversification but has sparked controversy and opposition from local residents who are concerned for several reasons.

The development’s site used to be Kane Springs Campground, where professional river guide Pete Lefebvre married his wife, Jamie Moulton. After a little weed pulling and clean-up, Lefebvre told the Deseret News that it was the perfect location for their family and friends to camp and celebrate their wedding in 2014.

“It hits home a little closer for us because we got married there,” he said. “But that’s almost like on top of just general feelings about that development and development in Moab overall. I mean, I think there’s just a lot of things about the proposed development that just seem kind of wrong.”

Jamie Moulton and Pete Lefebvre get married as their dog Bandit watches at Kane Springs Campground, along the Colorado River, near Moab on Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014. The site is where developers plan to build around 580 homes in a floodplain. | Kristin Murphy

Since the early 2000s, he and his wife have lived in Moab and worked as multi-day career river guides, primarily on the Colorado River down Cataract Canyon and in the Grand Canyon. Lefebvre said the community response to the Kane Creek development has been pretty unified against it.

When he and his wife attended one of the first public meetings to discuss the development going in, Lefebvre said it was crowded and emotional.

“It was like standing-room only (and) people were lining down the hallway, listening to the whole thing on the speakers. One after another, people came up and poured their emotions into the microphone,” he said. “About, you know, just being against the project, and how could this be happening? And I think a lot of people are in disbelief.”

The Kane Creek Development Watch is an advocacy group created earlier this year to prevent the 180-acre private land resort from succeeding. The group has raised concerns about various potential impacts of the development, including environmental degradation, strain on local infrastructure and changes to the community’s character and lifestyle.

Although it is actively involved in raising public awareness, securing legal representation and organizing community actions to influence the development process, some believe it is nearly impossible to get development to back out due to actions made more than two decades ago.

The area’s zoning changed in 1992 from general grazing to highway commercial, allowing this level of development to happen and complicating the community’s ability to influence the project’s scope significantly.

“Once those rights are there, and once they submit an application, there’s not a whole lot the county can do,” Commissioner Kevin Walker said in the January citizens-to-be-heard portion of the Grand County Commission meeting, per Moab Sun News. “Doesn’t mean there’s zero we can do. But, to use a sports metaphor, if it were a basketball game, we’re down 20 points, there’s six minutes left to play. … Someone might argue there’s only one minute left to play.”

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Signs are posted along Kane Creek Bouldevard protesting the Kane Creek development near Moab on Friday, April 26, 2024. Developers plan to build around 580 residential and commercial units in a floodplain along the Colorado River. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The development’s progress: Controlling water

Earlier this month, the decision to grant Kane Creek’s request for a conditional use permit was delayed until May 7 after a contentious meeting between the developer’s attorney, Bruce Baird, and the Grand County Commission.

The luxury-style properties are set to have their own wastewater and culinary water systems.

However, “Right now, the entire development’s preliminary plat is on hold as the commission weighs whether or not to grant a conditional use permit for the water systems,” according to The Times-Independent. “The wastewater treatment plant would lie in an existing cave along Kane Creek Boulevard with the capacity to treat up to 270,000 gallons of wastewater per day. ... Its capacity is roughly double the expected load of the development’s 586 planned units.”

But water in the desert is arguably more valuable than gold.

Due to its location in the Utah desert, Moab has a significant issue with water usability. The city’s primary water source is underground aquifers, which are largely dependent on snowpack from the La Sal Mountains.

To add strain to an already pressured issue, “The City of Moab and surrounding communities of the Moab/Spanish Valley region are experiencing sustained population growth and steady tourist visitation, leading to increased water demand,” per Engage Moab. “In addition, uncertainties about the climate and extended drought have generated concerns regarding water supplies.”

The Kane Creek development could impact Moab’s water supply by increasing the demand on an already strained local water resource. Given Moab’s reliance on a limited aquifer system, any new development could exacerbate existing challenges related to water scarcity.

Another water issue, the development is also in the process of backfilling and leveling the former campground, which is subject to flooding due to its location on the banks of the Colorado River.

To locals, the development simply doesn’t make sense.

“It’s kind of devastating because they probably have every right to do what they’re going to do. And sounds like they’re not even going to build as many units as they could. But the thing is still, it just doesn’t make sense,” Lefebvre told the Deseret News.

“In terms of the access, it’s one road in, one road out and it’s on a floodplain,” he added. “I get they are going to build up the entire floodplain to meet the FEMA requirements and everything, but still, that amount of work that they have to do just to build it. It all just seems kind of like a bad idea. Right?”

Pete Lefebvre poses for a portrait in Moab on Saturday, April 27, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News