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Mix-up with state causes worry over water, development in Cache County

The Old Cache County Courthouse sits beneath a clear blue sky.
The Old Cache County Courthouse, home of the county council offices and chambers.

Cache County is among the fastest-growing areas of the state, but a recent communication snafu left some county officials worried the state would stand in the way of the county’s growth.

In a news release last week, members of the Cache County Council said they were concerned with a proposal from the Utah Division of Water Rights, which the council interpreted as “a moratorium on all new water appropriations in Cache County.” The council drafted a letter last Wednesday and sent it to Teresa Wilhelmsen, the state engineer within the Division of Water Rights.

The council wrote the proposed change would, “prohibit any new development in Cache County, unless that development is part of a municipal system or is able to purchase existing water rights.”

However, both the state engineer and a county council employee acknowledged the concern about limiting development in Cache County is likely a misunderstanding.

Wilhelmsen said part of the confusion around the water allocation is based on a meeting in February, which she could not attend in person due to a snowstorm. At the meeting, a PowerPoint slide was titled, “Proposed Policy Changes,” and included the idea of Cache Valley being closed to new consumptive water appropriations.

She said last week that notion is subject to change, saying, “that’s an option that could be considered, but it’s not exactly being proposed.” She said there needs to be further studies and input from the public before any decisions would be made.

At the root of the misunderstanding is a proclamation from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox last year. Cox announced in November he was suspending the right to appropriate new water rights in the Great Salt Lake Basin. Cox’s announcement did not impact existing water rights, just future ones. As of now, that proclamation is still the law of the land, but that’s only until November when it expires.

The concern from Cache officials stemmed from the potential of losing future water allocations forever, according to Micah Safsten, a policy analyst for the Cache County Council. He said the council’s concern from the February presentation was that the current water restrictions were going to be implemented by the Division of Water Rights without being approved by the governor.

“While Governor Cox has a right to set this policy as a duly elected official, accountable to the voters of Utah, your office, respectfully, does not,” the letter says.

The letter said the council appreciates the need to conserve water, but council members were concerned such a policy would negatively impact Cache County’s growth and they wondered if the moratorium would even be necessary.

Though the letter pushes back against the potential restriction on water, the council also asked Wilhelmsen’s office to conduct a new study on the amount of groundwater available in Cache County. The most recent study was in 1999, which concluded there were 25,000 acre-feet of unappropriated groundwater in the county. Since then, around 7,000 acre-feet have been appropriated, according to the letter. For perspective, a Utah home needs around .45 acre-feet of water rights to be built.

The county added that the area is a closed aquifer that largely doesn’t flow into the Great Salt Lake, aside from some springs that flow into the Bear River. The need to conserve water that flows into Great Salt Lake was at the heart of Cox’s proclamation in November.

Wilhelmsen said she appreciated the county’s desire for a new study, because that is one of her tasks to complete as part of the proclamation. She added that sometimes her office doesn’t get feedback on proposals, and she took the letter as a positive thing from the county.

“We absolutely have to work together,” she said, “and I actually was very encouraged by that letter, that they show a willingness in that letter to work together.”

Safsten said there is no ill will between the council and Wilhelmsen’s office, and the council plans on working with the Division of Water Rights to make a path of sustainable growth going forward. He added the council also plans to meet with other state leaders and members of the Legislature.

“The main point of the (council’s) letter is a request to update that 1999 study, to reevaluate the amount of groundwater that is under Cache County,” Safsten said. “Particularly the amount of groundwater in Cache County that isn’t having any sort of influence on the Great Salt Lake.”

Wilhelmsen said part of Cox’s proclamation is for her to evaluate whether or not those restrictions are effective, and if it should stay in place around the Great Salt Lake Basin. She is supposed to report her findings to the Legislature in November.

Much has changed in the over two decades since its last groundwater study, but Safsten said county leaders are eager to move forward.

“We fully concede that the conditions have certainly changed since 1999,” he said. “Let’s just see to what degree.”

Reporter Jacob Scholl covers northern Utah as part of a newly-created partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Public Radio. Scholl writes for The Tribune and appears on-air for UPR.