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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

The Burden Of Proof: Kane County Residents Worry Proposed Frac Sand Mine May Jeopardize Aquifer

Against a background of buttes and dry grass, an elderly man in a cowboy hat adjusts a fence post and barbed wire.
David Fuchs / KUER
Kirk Heaton is a former Kane County Justice Court judge whose family has been ranching near Kanab for five generations. He says their operation has been impacted by the overtaxing of the aquifer at Pipe Springs and worries the same fate may befall Kanab.

KANAB — Kane County’s most populous city sits between the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and the Arizona Strip. It’s a dramatic landscape of red cliffs and canyons crashing into high desert grasslands — the kind of place where, when driving on backroads, clouds of dust might shoot out of the vents if you turn on the air conditioning.

But that kind of thing doesn’t bother Kirk Heaton, a former Kane County Justice Court judge. Heaton grew up here, and he and his family have been ranching on this land for five generations. 

What does bother him, though, is being irresponsible with water. 

This summer, the city of Kanab and the Kane County Water Conservancy District voted to sell water to a controversial frac sand mine that has been proposed for a state-owned site 11 miles north of town. The company behind the project is Southern Red Sands, a start-up mining company backed primarily by Kem C. Gardner.

Kane County is anticipating significant growth and water challenges. A 2013 projected water usage report predicts the city’s population will more than triple over the next 40 years. And a 2016 report estimates that the county water conservancy district’s “reliable supplies” will be in deficit by 2035. 

Some Kane County residents are saying their local representatives haven’t done enough to vet the potential impacts of the proposed mine — and feel that the future of the aquifer they depend on is at stake.

Among them is Heaton.

“If you’re the proponent of change, you bear the burden of proof,” he said. “Someone has to prove to me that this isn’t going to impact us.”

Will history repeat itself?

Against a back-drop of dry grass and a low-growing tree, a cattle trough overflows next to a dry pond bed.
Between the trough and the tree lies an empty pond that Kirk Heaton's family used to use to water their cattle. The pond went dry due to the overtaxing of the aquifer beneath the Pipe Springs National Monument.

Heaton’s concern stems from experience. This wouldn’t be the first time he’s seen an aquifer overdrawn.

His family’s ranch has long relied on the water from the four springs at Pipe Springs National Monument. 

The aquifer that feeds them neighbors the one that supplies water to the city of Kanab. Heaton told KUER that they used to produce 44 gallons per minute, which local stockmen, the monument and the Kaibab Paiute tribe historically shared in a three-way split. 

But that began to change in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when the tribe and the park service installed new wells to create a reliable source of potable water for future development. 

Today, only one spring produces a meaningful flow — and it’s a small fraction of what it used to be, Heaton said. A 2007 study commissioned by the National Park Service confirmed that the creation of the wells is responsible for the springs’ decline. 

Heaton is worried history may repeat itself. 

I’m not convinced that it’s not going to happen over there,” he said. “And if it’s a local aquifer, I think it’s going to happen quickly.”

The National Park Service Weighs In

Heaton is not alone in his concerns.

Southern Red Sands’ water service agreements with both the city and the county water conservancy district require approval from the state engineer’s office at the Utah Division of Water Rights.

The county water conservancy district has not yet submitted an application to the state engineer, but the office has received 43 protests and letters of concern regarding the city’s application. They’ve come from local residents, the county’s largest employer Best Friends Animal Society and even the National Park Service.

“We monitor a lot of water rights in the area, and it’s not very often that we write formal letters of concern,” said Cassity Bromley, the chief of resources and research at Zion National Park. “We have to be fairly confident that there is some potential to have an impact.” 

The park gets its water, in part, from an aquifer adjacent to the one the mine would draw from. And according to Bromley, there’s not enough research available to know definitively how potential drawdown from the mine could affect the seeps and springs that feed Zion’s water supply. 

She said the park is partnering with the United States Geological Survey to answer that question, but it’s not certain the study will be complete before the state engineer has to make their decision.

The 'Worst Case Scenario'

A group of men and women sit listening to a meeting in a middle school auditorium.
Credit David Fuchs / KUER
Acting as a neutral body, the Chamber of Commerce hosted a public forum to discuss mine-related water concerns. They invited all stakeholders, but only the Kane County Water Conservancy District and Best Friends Animal Society sent representatives.

Whether enough research has been done is a big question in Kanab, too.

Following the city and the county water conservancy district’s decisions to sell water to the mine, Best Friends Animal Society contracted a hydrologist to look into the city’s aquifer. 

They hired Dr. Kenneth Kolm, a former professor at the Colorado School of Mines whose speciality is modelling hydrogeologic systems. His company recently analyzed all of the water resources for the city of Moab. And when they applied the same techniques to Kanab, they determined that the mine could have a big impact.

Kolm shared his results at an October Kanab Area Chamber of Commerce meeting focused on water concerns. “The city wells and the Best Friends wells could dry up in an as much as ten years,” he told the audience, referring to a “worst case scenario” in which Southern Reds Sands would use the full 1,200 acre-feet of water it has purchased. 

However, in a previous interview with KUER, the mining company’s CEO Chad Staheli indicated that because of the current market, their facility will only use one-third of that amount.

A Differing Opinion

A man in a royal blue shirt and black puffy jacket stands to speak in a public meeting.
Credit David Fuchs / KUER
Mike Noel, the former state lawmaker and current executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District, answers a question from the audience during a public forum focused on water concerns.

Mike Noel, the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy District and former state lawmaker, attended the meeting and has said he sees the issue differently. 

He said the water his agency would provide would be diverted from water already being used to irrigate alfalfa, so it won’t constitute a new draw on the aquifer.

He also said that using the water in this way will help create jobs in the near-term, even if the community will still need to find other sources of water to support future growth. 

“There’s enough water to create 180 jobs with 600 acre-feet of water. Is that a good thing? Absolutely,” he told KUER. “But is there enough water to create 1,000 jobs? 2,000 jobs? It may not be.” 

The company has said the mine will create 40 jobs on-site and 100 indirect jobs like trucking.

Noel added that culinary water — the water people drink — always gets top priority in the event of a shortage. So, he said, no one will ever be in danger of going thirsty.

Noel is also one of four members of the Lake Powell Pipeline Management Committee and has been a longtime proponent of the billion-plus dollar project that would divert water from the Colorado River to Southern Utah. He has served as the executive director of the Kane County Water Conservancy district since 1996, just four years after it was created. He said it’s his responsibility to be forward-looking. 

“If I went to my board and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to run out of water in about 10 years.’ They’d say, ‘Ok, looks like we need a new manager,’ he said. “I’ve got to be looking to the future of where the water’s going to come from.” 

But for people like Kirk Heaton, the future of the town’s water is too important to roll the dice.

I want to see the fields stay watered and green — that’s my passion,” he said. “I’m opposed to what’s happening because I don’t think that those things have been looked at in the depth that they should have been.” 

The state engineer will be holding a hearing on the matter sometime next year.

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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