ST. GEORGE – After a nudge from one of Southern Utah’s oldest water rights holders, the state has put a significant restriction on irrigation along the Virgin River and its tributaries. Tuesday evening, in a public hearing, several leaders from the Utah Division of Water Rights (corrected – see ed. note) explained to a room full of about 60 citizens why they had to stop irrigating from the Virgin River and its tributaries.
Until July 7, several tributaries of the Virgin River have historically not been regulated by the state. On this date, a letter from State Engineer Kent Jones was released which mandated that about 180 individual water rights owners must close their irrigation head gates along the Virgin River tributaries northeast of St. George, generally between Washington City and Zion National Park.
Historically, this nonregulation tradition is unique to these tributaries along the Virgin River, Deputy State Engineer Boyd Clayton said. Most other rivers in the state are regulated by a commissioner who is assigned to defined sections of a river or tributary.
Clayton and his fellow DWR administrators said they weren’t sure why the Virgin River tributaries haven’t been regulated up to this point like other Utah rivers have.
“We’re still scratching our heads trying to figure out how we got here,” Clayton said.
Nonetheless, the DWR leaders collectively said that this drought has forced action. An action the state calls “priority cuts.” In short, these priority cuts mandate that all irrigation water rights owners who acquired their right after 1900 must turn off their irrigation water as of last week.
In Washington County, this year has been the second driest year, and last year was the fourth driest, in 46 years of record, Deputy State Engineer Jared Manning said. So, water rights owners aren’t receiving the volume of irrigation water they are entitled to. In fact, one of the oldest owners of irrigation rights along the Virgin River – the St. George and Washington Canal Company located at the Washington Fields diversion – is currently receiving about half of their water-rights flow and that’s with some supplemented by storage, Manning said – storage, meaning reservoirs.
Because Utah state law has a water rights seniority list of sorts, those who have had water rights the longest – some dating back to the 1860s – have the right to their full supply of water before those who have gained water rights more recently. Or, as the state puts it: “A senior appropriator’s water right must be satisfied before a subsequent (junior) appropriator receives any water.”
State engineers have decided to make the seniority cut-off point at the year 1900. As of July 7, all those who received their rights after 1900 must close their diversions allowing those with older rights to fulfill their full water contract.
This is how the law has always been, it just hasn’t been regulated, Associate General Manager for the Washington County Water Conservancy District, Barbara Hjelle said.
On years when there’s more then enough water, everybody gets water. However, on years when there’s not enough water, technically, people who are at the bottom end shouldn’t take any, she said.
This is not an uncommon rule for most irrigators. Rick Hafen, a farmer from the Santa Clara River system and the Beryl/Enterprise system, said that he is used to these irrigation regulations.
“This is something that comes occasionally and you just deal with it,” Hafen said.
In fact, his farm in Santa Clara has had to cut about 50 percent of their irrigation due to restrictions so far this year, he said. The Santa Clara system and the Beryl/Enterprise system are not involved in the current mandate from the state. Neither is the North Fork of the Virgin river as these area’s already have their own water commissioners, who have been regulating water flows.
“Folks that are part of a distribution system that is established, they sort of know the drill – they have a commissioner and they sort of know that as it gets later in the summer their water right is going to be cut off,” Manning said.
This is one of the reasons why these specific Virgin River tributaries were chosen to be restricted – because historically they’ve never had a system commissioner. That’s not to say the main line of the Virgin River doesn’t have a commissioner – it does, but these tributaries, including Ash Creek, Kolob Creek, LaVerkin Creek and others, have somehow flown under the radar.
One of the initiators of change came from one of the biggest and oldest “senior water owners” in the diversion game. According to the state engineer’s July 9 letter, current circumstances have caused senior water owners to question if they are receiving their full water supplies. The letter identifies the user who initiated the call to action as the Washington Fields diversion.
The Washington Fields diversion of the Virgin River supplies one of the oldest water rights holders on the river: The St. George and Washington Canal Company. The Canal Company is one of the largest irrigation water rights owners on the Virgin River and provides water to shareholders in the St. George and Washington Fields area.
One of their biggest shareholders is the Washington County Water Conservancy District. This relationship is complicated, Hjelle of the Conservancy District said. Because of their complicated contractual and other relationships with the canal company, Hjelle said that if others are taking water away from the Canal Company, they’re taking water away from everyone.
This is one of the reasons why the Conservancy District sent a letter to the Canal Company regarding the water rights issues.
“I know that we had brought this to their attention as something that needed to be done,” Hjelle said. “Our concern is that they could affect our ability to store water over time. This could ultimately affect the storage that we have that we serve to our municipal customers, and we don’t want to see that happen.”
Even though the Conservancy District had a concern over a possible indirect effect of the Canal Company’s lack of water, the DWR’s public hearing highlighted the view that these priority cuts are almost exclusively only going to divert water from people who have irrigation diversions. This restriction is only in effect on outdoor water use, and doesn’t affect culinary water – as culinary water is stored it is not subject to priority cuts anymore, he said.
That’s not to say that the Conservancy District’s direct flow won’t be subject to restrictions with these priority cuts – it will be in some instances. However, Hjelle said, it’s historically the Conservancy District’s choice to never divert water during the summer months, so this should not have direct municipal effects in the short term.
It also does not affect underground water rights it only affects surface water rights.
As far as the future, Hjelle said she admits that if this continues for a while it could have an affect on the culinary water. That was part of the reason the Conservancy District brought this to the attention of the Canal Company.
The future of the ban is just as ominous.
“I’ve learned not to try and outguess mother nature,” Manning said. “Last year at this time we got a lot of monsoonal moisture that helped bring flows up later in the summer – that may happen again this year, it may not.”
It all just depends on what the natural water supply is throughout the summer, he said.
Whether more water rights owners will be affected is also yet to be seen. The state engineer’s theory, that the amount of water in the Virgin River will satisfy all the water rights of those rights holders from before the year 1900, could change.
There is a possibility that the cut might have to be deeper, Manning said.
The 1900 cutoff was an engineering judgment, Manning said. Basically, you look at how much water is available at the end of the system, the last diversion, or the Washington Fields diversion, what the priorities are, and you see that there’s not enough water there.
“At this point,” Manning said, “you have to make an educated guess on how much you need to cut off for those rights to be satisfied; which means, sometimes you take your best shot.”
Ed. note: CORRECTION – DWR in this report refers to Division of Water Rights not Division of Wildlife Resources. There were no Division of Wildlife Resources representatives in attendance or involved in the public meeting.
- See the state engineer’s letter, including itemized priority schedule of water rights owners, here: July 7, 2014, Utah Engineer’s priority call on Virgin River water rights
- State restricts Virgin River water use to owners of pre-1901 rights; Public Meeting Notice
- Worst drought since 1989; Virgin River near record-breaking low
- Free water checks for customizing irrigation
- Concerns raised over proposed ‘waters of the US’ rule; public input period
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