A quest for water: Whose water is it?
Tim Vetere has leased Wayne County's water rights to theif(requestedWidth < requestedwidth =" 200;">GREEN RIVER - In Tim Vetere's dreams, the Fremont River water flows upstream to grow melons, hay and cattle on a ranch that stretches across thousands of acres of good farmland in east central Utah's section of the Colorado River Basin.
His wish seems to have come true, at least on paper. State Engineer Jerry Olds, seeing Wayne County perilously close to the deadline for putting its 50,000 acre-feet per year of Colorado River to use, last year approved Vetere's request for one of the largest water-right transfers in recent state history.
The rancher's quest for water comes at a time when water needs increasingly are clashing with reality: The state has doled out 180,000 rights to tap rivers and dig wells, but there's just not enough water to honor them all.
Vetere now can draw on the Green River - about 60 miles upstream from where the right exists - for Wayne County's Fremont River allocation and may irrigate more than 16,000 acres across three counties. And Olds, willing to get creative to solve some of Utah's most vexing water problems, reckons the rancher's plan might set an example for how Utah can keep its share of Colorado River water at a time when big downstream states are facing shortages.
The Colorado River Basin has been closed to new large allocations in the decade Vetere has been trying to secure his own water rights. That's why Olds pointed Vetere to Utah rural water agencies that have yet to "prove up" their Colorado River water rights by putting them to beneficial use.
Maybe, he told Vetere, someone would sell some rights or work out some other deal.
Vetere approached Wayne County, where water managers agreed to allow the third-generation rancher to lease its right to the Fremont River. In turn, said Bliss Brinkerhoff, a member of the county water conservancy district board, Vetere will get to keep 15,000 to 20,000 acre-feet for his own if he can show he is putting the water to good use.
Olds made sure the state would get something out of it, too - new understanding of never-tapped resources, which under the law belong to all Utahns.
"As state engineer, I want to see Utah use this water," Olds said. "What we're doing is giving [Vetere] a hunting permit to go see if there are in fact elephants down there, and if there are, he can shoot one."
But if or when Wayne County tries to get the water back, as Brinkerhoff says may happen, it will depend on whether the water managers can show they need it.
If they can't, "then there's an issue," Olds said.
Transferring such a large amount of water rights from one hydrological basin to another and putting it into the hands of one struggling farmer was a bodacious move, but it wasn't the first time Olds shocked Utah's water establishment with his activist approach.
Olds has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1972 and ascended to the position of state engineer when former Gov. Mike Leavitt began his third term in 2001. He is responsible for administering Utah's 180,000 water rights.
A bit more than a year later, Olds announced that because farmers and ranchers were pumping out far more groundwater than was flowing back in through natural recharge, aquifers risked permanent destruction.
After releasing his report and suggesting not all the water rights could be fulfilled, Olds suffered rhetorical beatings from ranchers, farmers and rural officials, as well as openly unenthusiastic lawmakers whom he had asked to help him figure out how to realistically "divide" the water, as state law obliquely requires of the state engineer.
A legislative task force met the next year and decided it's wrong to mine the groundwater, but declined meaningful action because no one wanted to upset constituents.
This year, after unusually hostile water-law debates during the legislative session, lawmakers agreed to set up a new task force, this one comprising water lawyers, state officials and representatives of water agencies.
The panel has met three times, laid out the problems as they see them and debated how to smooth out their enduring oppositions. Unlike the previous legislative panel, everyone in the room knows water law. They appear serious and determined to make a difference by October, when they will have to turn over their recommendations to the Legislature.
Their top priority is to clarify the role of the state engineer - an appointed, supposedly nonpolitical office, which has existed since 1897.
Utah Division of Natural Resources chief Mike Styler predicts the panelists eventually will reach a consensus on how Utah will bring 19th century water law into the 21st century. For now, they are struggling over mutually exclusive goals - "a can of worms," one lawmaker remarked - while drafting new laws that Olds would have to administer.
Olds, who grew up in Kanarraville and Hurricane amid the same common Western water arguments, doesn't mind.
"As state engineer, I carry out the statute," he said. "I'm willing to do whatever they want me to."
In the meantime, he will continue to dole out 3,000 to 4,000 water-rights decisions every year and take his lumps along the way.
"I'd hate to be state engineer," said Todd Bingham, a spokesman for the Utah Farm Bureau. "You couldn't pay me to do that. He's an enemy to somebody all the time."
In mid-May, about seven miles north of the town of Green River, Vetere stood ankle-deep in alfalfa. A wind out of Tusher Canyon blew mist off his $300,000 pivot irrigator slowly sweeping 1,500 emerald acres snugged up against the dun-colored Book Cliffs.
Vetere pointed out a San Rafael Swell rock formation to the west called the Silent City, where cliff walls and sawtooth peaks glowed and darkened like a sci-fi metropolis when rainclouds crossed the sun. He fretted about the cold spring's effect on his crop and said he was embarrassed his hay wasn't at least shin-high.
Vetere recently paid more than $1 million for 2,300 acres of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration property. He will expand his Book Cliffs alfalfa field to 9,600 acres. The Wayne County water right allows him to irrigate 16,300 acres. He figures it will cost $15 million to $17 million to "prove up" 50,000 acre-feet.
When asked how he would pay for it all, he said, "with my crops."
But he also has deep-pocket backers, among them David Wilkey, a member of a Washington County family of developers whose projects include the Sand Hollow golf resort in Hurricane.
Vetere brushed off questions about the possibility of another transfer or sale of the water rights to fuel Washington County growth, saying he has had several offers but turned them all down.
Vetere said he is especially uninterested in selling water to a group that may pursue a nuclear power-plant permit near Blue Castle Butte, just west of his alfalfa field, even though the offer was high enough that he would never have to work again.
"I told them no," Vetere said. "People have to eat."
If he has doubts about proving he is using the amount of water he has leased from Wayne County - enough to cover 50,000 acres with a foot of water or supply the annual domestic needs of 50,000 households - he keeps his own counsel, even as he acknowledges his critics.
"They called me crazy," he said. "I believe in my heart it's a good project."
Others, including the federal government, disagree.
Olds' decision came over the objections of six U.S. Bureau of Land Management hydrologists, a BLM real estate specialist, an Interior Department lawyer, private property owners and representatives of irrigation companies through whose ditches the water diverted from the Green River would run.
In its written protest, the BLM said Vetere's project would threaten to dry up about 54 acre-feet of water (an acre-foot can supply one Utah household with water for a year) that it draws from downstream springs and underground wells near Hanksville. The agency says the two river basins are completely separate, which could mean the transfer isn't legal.
The BLM also fears that new wells Vetere proposes near Hanksville could intercept water before it reaches the Fremont and Dirty Devil rivers, tributaries that flow to the Colorado. This could cause the Fremont to dry up before it reaches Capitol Reef National Park and pose unacceptable risks to federally listed threatened and endangered species, the agency said.
Representatives of an area irrigation company protested that accommodating Vetere's new water would require rebuilding the ditch - at Vetere's expense - to twice its current size.
Some property owners argued that Vetere was proposing to use water they were trying to develop; others objected to Vetere running irrigation apparatus over their land.
Vetere says he wouldn't infringe on anyone's property or water, a promise included in the transfer permit.
Olds wrote into the transfer permit conditions that require Vetere to work with the BLM to set up a well monitoring program to determine the effect of his project on BLM wells.
Vetere also must work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to install screens across the intake pipes to make sure no threatened or endangered species from the Green or Colorado rivers are harmed. This work would have to be completed before he could start his irrigation project.
The monitoring results would add to the state's understanding of the Colorado River Basin's surface and groundwater connections, Olds said.
The water would have to be pumped uphill from the Green River to various fields. Vetere says he can't get enough electricity from Rocky Mountain Power to run the pumps he'll need, so he's looking into the possibility of solar or wind power to augment the project's power needs
Vetere also may have to work with local irrigation companies to improve the Tusher Diversion Dam to make sure it is strong enough to handle the extra water Vetere's project would require.
Because Olds is concerned about Vetere's ability to pay for all this, any requests for extensions on the water right would require a detailed financial feasibility study.
If the project fails?
"Then let's go to the next person in line," Olds said.