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State Sets Water Priorities On Virgin River Tributaries

Judy Fahys


A drought in southwestern Utah means there’s not enough water to fulfill the needs of all property owners in the area. KUER’s Judy Fahys reports on the priority list that’s leaving some Washington County water users dry this year.

People who know water know the maxim: “First in time, first in right.” That’s the guiding principle in water law that puts people at the front of the line for runoff and groundwater based on the age of their water right. State officials have informed those at the back of the queue in dry southwestern Utah they aren’t entitled to water this year.

Boyd Clayton, Deputy State Engineer, says it’s the first time this has happened on streams that feed the Virgin River.

“It is an extraordinary situation because we haven’t been regulating the tributaries on the Virgin River,” Clayton says. “But there obviously isn’t enough water to fulfill the rights, and so we felt like to honor the law we needed to regulate the tributaries.”

The water cutoff will affect around 100 water districts and property owners who secured their rights after the year 1900. Washington County Water Conservancy District requested the crackdown, which is formally known as a “call.”

“It’s complicated, but that is the ultimate end result of people taking water that they are not entitled to,” says Barbara Hjelle, associate general manager and counsel for the district, “that water will end up not being stored in our reservoirs when it otherwise would be.”

The St. George advocacy group, Citizens for Dixie’s Future, says the state’s action is a signal that it’s time for more water conservation.

“I think it represents a tipping point,” says LeAnn Skrzynski, the group’s executive director. “Three times (a water-rights official) said in a very quiet way he figured there were going to be deeper cuts. So, I think he was preparing people.”

The state has already begun policing Ash Creek, Clear Creek, Kolob Creek, Quail Creek and other Virgin River tributaries.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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