State Bill 20, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Stowell, allows for the creation of a special water district that can develop and execute a groundwater management plan. As of last Thursday it had passed through the state Senate and was nearing a vote in the House of Representatives.
Legislators put the process on hold after hearing concerns from Cedar City and Iron County officials. After discussing the issue at a special meeting Wednesday, the Cedar City Council decided to take no action on the bill.
Enterprise Mayor Lee Bracken attended the CICWCD meeting to explain and defend the bill. It was drafted in large part to address the issue of over-allocated water rights that Enterprise residents have been struggling to resolve for several years now.
“I came here to issue a friendly appeal for your help and support,” he said. “We’re farmers, ranchers, and our intent was to create an entity to help us manage our water.”
A group of Escalante Valley farmers got together after the state engineer asked the region to dramatically reduce its allocation of water rights. Mayor Bracken said that, under the system proposed by the state, some farmers could lose all their water rights.
“I don’t need to remind you that that kind of reduction would be catastrophic for the third and fourth generation farmers whose livelihoods rely on those water sources,” he said.
So the Escalante Valley farmers did something unusual – they got together to find a way that they could collectively share their water rights to protect the economic viability of all the farmers, he said.
They volunteered to actively conserve water usage and work with the state to purchase and retire water rights so that no homes and farms with lower priority rights were left without water.
They soon found that, to accomplish that goal, they needed to form an official entity. They approached their legislators for advice, and State Bill 20 emerged as the solution.
CICWCD Director Scott Wilson expressed some concerns over the terms of the bill. Specifically, he worried that it would allow for the creation of a new type of district with the ability for unelected officials to levy taxes. Also, the new district could affect areas that are important to Iron County’s industry and rail corridor, which Wilson described as the economic engine of the county.
“We’re concerned about the precedent-setting aspect of this bill and what we will inherit,” Wilson said.
Both Wilson and the board expressed concern that Iron County hadn’t been more involved in creating the bill when it could strongly affect Iron County, some saying they’d first heard of the bill just two weeks ago.
“I’m here to issue an apology for that,” Bracken said. “We’re new at what we’re trying to do here, and we’ve been careless in not bringing you on as a partner.”
All parties expressed a willingness to amend that problem and work together to suggest modifications before the bill receives a final vote.
“I see a lot of good (in the bill) but I also see some red flags,” said County Commissioner Wayne Smith. “Maybe we can get together to make amendments to satisfy some of these concerns.”
Wilson seconded Smith’s proposal.
“I raised these concerns because once you get the legislation on the books, it has the power to be so impactful, we ought to take the time now to get it right,” he said. “I pledge the district’s best efforts to make that happen.”