ST. GEORGE — Quail Creek Reservoir has been referred to as the foundation that allowed Washington County’s population and economy to expand over the last 35 years. It was also the first water project overseen by Ron Thompson, the long-serving general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District.
Thompson has served with the water district and overseen numerous water infrastructure projects for nearly 40 years. Last week he bid farewell to the district and handed the reins over to Zachary Renstrom, the new general manager.
Like many others who have worked with Thompson over the years, Renstrom gives him a large measure of credit for creating a water system that has supported the county’s growth and commerce.
“If you’ve had a home built here in the last 20 years, if you’ve moved here in the last 20 years, I can’t think of anyone you need to thank more than Ron for making that happen,” Renstrom said.
Thompson was hired by the district to be its attorney by its governing board in 1981. Soon after, Thompson, along with water board member Wayne Wilson, traveled to Salt Lake City to meet with then Gov. Scott Matheson and garner support for the Quail Creek Project.
Ron was made the district’s temporary general manager and put in charge of the Quail Creek Project. His served on a month-to-month basis in this capacity until the board made the position full time in November 1985.
Prior to joining the water district, Thompson had a private law practice and also served a term as Washington County Attorney, where water was one of the county priorities he tended to.
“I had some concern we were growing so fast then that we needed to do more in terms of securing our future water,” Thompson said. “I just felt water needed to be a higher priority at the time.”
Originally a farm boy from Iron County with family ties to St. George, Thompson said he grew up understanding the importance of water to a community.
When Thompson was originally brought into the water district, Washington County’s water situation wasn’t the best, Renstrom said.
“The Dixie Project had fallen apart. The cities were beginning to fight about water issues, and at that time the water board went to Ron and said, ‘Ron, we’ve got a massive problem, and we don’t know how to fix it,” Renstrom said.
The Dixie Project had been a federal project that would have created a reservoir in Washington County and had a capacity of 93,300 acre feet of water. However, that project was abandoned due to economic and other factors.
Due to the growth Washington County was experiencing because of the building of Interstate 15 in the early 1970s and St. George being marketed as a retiree and tourist destination, the need to secure a reliable source of water storage was becoming urgent – thus the creation of the Quail Creek Project.
As the water flow of the Virgin River proved unpredictable year-to-year, having the capability to store water in times of need would be a great benefit to the county.
The Quail Creek Project got underway and was completed in 1985. The creation of the reservoir is credited with allowing the county to grow from a population of 26,000 in 1980 to 50,000 by 1990.
“It’s laid the foundation of everything we’ve done since,” Thompson said.
Since then, Thompson has been at the helm of the water district and initiated long-term plans for the county’s water infrastructure. New reservoirs and regional pipelines have been built over the last 30 years, while others are currently being built or are under development.
Thompson has also become known regionally and nationally among water managers and has served on a variety of water-related boards and organizations. Among those have been the Colorado River Water Users Association, National Water Resources Association, Utah Water Development Commission and Utah Water Finance Agency.
“There are lots of things going on in this economy that couldn’t have been dreamed of 30 or 40 years go,” he said. “I deeply believe it’s important for any society … to protect the water resources we have, use it wisely, but also look to how we expand and develop and buffer our water source.”
Of course, the major project the water district hopes will be built is the Lake Powell Pipeline. While Thompson has been at the forefront of that project and has advocated its need for Washington County, he decided it was time to hand the reins to someone new, as he wasn’t sure he’d be around to see the project completed.
“There are a lot of aspects of this job I’ll miss, but I feel it’s time to move on,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who is in his 70s, announced over a year ago that he planned to retire at the end of 2019. His future plans involve spending more time with his family, continuing to work at his ranch and doing some legal consulting.
“It’s been a blessing to me and my family to live here and watch the community grow and progress,” Thompson said. “I look at it today and we’re now at 170,000-plus people who call it home.”
As for the legacy he leaves behind, Thompson said it’s the quality of the people he’s worked with at the water district and will carry its mission forward.
“No project is built by one person,” he said, quick to move credit from himself to those he’s worked with at the water district over the four decades. “They are collectively built by a lot of people.”
Ed Bowler, a member of the water district’s board of trustees since 1998 and a longtime friend of Thompson, said the former general manager has been surrounded by an exceptional staff and praised Thompson for the work he’s done for the county.
“He really started the water development that allowed us to grow to the population we have today,” Bowler said. “He’ll be missed. … He is a good man. He’s done a lot of good.”
Renstrom, Thompson’s replacement, said he has big shoes to fill figuratively and literally – Thompson is 6 feet 8 inches tall. He said he’ll miss the knowledge Thompson takes with him and said he’ll definitely be calling him for advice.
In preparation for the role he would be undertaking, Renstrom, a former Washington County Commissioner, worked with him at the water district a year leading up to his retirement. During that time, Renstrom said he came to know the type of person Thompson is beyond being the head of the water district.
“People are sometimes intimidated by Ron’s size, but I’ve found Ron to be a very caring and loving man,” Renstrom said. “Not just to individuals but our community. He loves this community.”
“Everyone in his county has benefited from what Ron chose to do 40 years ago,” he said.
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