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Beehive Archive: Legalized Water Theft— The Daniels Diversion

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Water in Utah is a precious resource, and many have stretched the law to control it. In 1879, a group of farmers at the mouth of Daniels Canyon diverted water that belonged to the Uintah Valley Ute Reservation to irrigate crops in Heber Valley. Although this trespass was illegal, white settler ideas about land use allowed the theft to continue.

During the last decades of the 1800s, white farmers dug miles of canals, built reservoirs, and even dug an eight-hundred-foot tunnel through the mountain. This system, built and maintained by two different canal companies with dozens of investors, pulled water from the Strawberry River in one watershed—across the Reservation boundary—into another. 

The Strawberry Canal system had support from the Reservation’s Indian Agent, who petitioned the Utah government in 1902 on its behalf, even as he acknowledged that the farmers had “no legal right to this water.” In 1905, the federal government sent an Army unit to destroy the diversion but the Secretary of the Interior intervened, arguing that the farmers had been accessing the resource “for many years, and that the diversion of the water … [had] not been in any manner detrimental to the Indians.”

So, no one denied that the diversion was illegal, but the dispute rested on cultural ideas about how water should be used. Fundamental to Western water law is the principle of “use it or lose it” and for white settlers, water was meant for irrigation. But Utes had their own values and uses for water, and were not channeling it into irrigation ditches for individual plots, despite government pressure to do so. Because Utes were not using their water in the same way as white farmers, government officials decided that their water was not being used.

The Daniels Diversion remained until 1992 and set the stage for larger scale diversions of water from the Uinta Basin to the Wasatch Front. The legacy of this contentious theft is still felt in legal battles over water between the Ute Tribe and the state government that remain unresolved.

 

The Beehive Archive is a project of Utah Humanities, produced in partnership with Utah Public Radio and KCPW Radio with funding from the Lawrence T. and Janet T. Dee Foundation. Find sources and past episodes at Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive.