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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.

Washington County eyes underground water rights, but it’s unclear if water is really there

The splash pad at St. George’s Town Square Park. The county water district is exploring other water sources, including ones that could be deep underground.
Lexi Peery
The splash pad at St. George’s Town Square Park. The county water district is exploring other water sources, including ones that could be deep underground.

The Washington County Water Conservancy District needs more water for its growing population. They are hoping to secure nearly 13,000 acre-feet of what they say is unallocated water.

The district submitted an application to the state in March for rights to the water and plans to drill 18 wells. The wells would be along the Hurricane Fault, which runs from the northern end of the county, partly along I-15, to the Utah-Arizona border. Two geological studies previously commissioned by the district suggest water could be deep underground.

More research still needs to be done, said General Manager Zach Renstrom. That’s why they’re asking for the rights and to drill the wells, to see if the water is really there.

“It's going to be a long process,” he said. “A lot of people will be looking at it because there is a big hurdle that we have to overcome. But filing that water rights application is kind of the first trigger to get things going.”

Residents near the proposed wells oppose the move as do the mayors of New Harmony and Kanarraville. They’re concerned about how it may impact their existing water rights. In the district’s application, the state engineer stated the area’s groundwater has already been “fully appropriated.”

“We're firm believers that if you don't have the water you don't develop the land,” said Doneva Hecker, the town clerk of New Harmony. “And the mentality, it seems that Washington County has for the most part, is they want to build as much as they can and make as much money as they can. And it's very frustrating.”

The district has pursued the controversial Lake Powell Pipeline for years and hoped by now it would help with the population growth. In 2020, surrounding states raised legal objections to the project and it’s on hold as more environmental analysis is done.

Renstrom said the delay is partly why they’re digging into other options.

“I’m looking for everything,” he said. “Everything’s on the table right now because we have to, we have no choice.”

Lisa Rutherford, an advisor to Conserve Southwest Utah, said there are too many unknowns when it comes to these aquifers. She also filed a protest against the district’s application.

Rutherford said the county hasn’t exhausted every effort to conserve the water it already has. She said conservation ordinances proposed by the district and passed throughout the county, need more teeth when it comes to enforcement and rules on lawns.

“To say that we need to go for more [water] when we’re not even doing what really needs to be done is not a good excuse,” she said.

Over 60 protests have been filed against the district’s application, including the U.S. Department of the Interior. The National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management are included in the DOI’s protest. They say the district hasn’t consulted them, even though seven of the 18 proposed wells would be on public lands. They’re also concerned about the hydrologic uncertainty, and the potential ecological consequences.

Updated: April 27, 2022 at 4:46 PM MDT
Updated with a count of protests against the district's application, especially noting a protest from the Department of the Interior.
Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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