Bill could protect Snyderville Basin fishery
To protect fish and make treating wastewater in western Summit County less expensive, a bill before the Legislature would loosen laws that restrict who can own dedicated instream flows in Utah.
"This is an issue that we think is extremely important for the citizens here in Park City," said Mike Luers, general manager of the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District. "We think it’s something that the local people should have control over."
At issue is whether local governments like the water reclamation district should be allowed to help ensure water stays in streams by buying water rights in areas like East Canyon Creek.
"There was never any thought of the creek having such big demands on it that the creek would dry up and the fish would die," Luers said.
But, currently, only the state’s Divisions of Wildlife Resources and State Parks may hold instream flows, meaning creeks can continue to have water after irrigation rights upstream are satisfied, he explained.
State Sen. Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, hopes his Capitol Hill colleagues, after seeing the impact development has had on watersheds in areas like Park City, will act to prevent streams like East Canyon Creek from drying up as it did in 2003, according to Luers.
"The people who own the water rights in and down the creek have a right to remove more water than the creek has in it," he said about so-called ‘paper water’ in the Snyderville Basin. "East Canyon Creek does not have a protected minimum flow. If you own the water rights above our treatment plant, the law enables you to take the last drop of water out of the creek and kill the fish."
By allowing special service districts like his to purchase instream flows, Luers insists SB95 could help ensure East Canyon Creek continues to flow.
"We have a stream that is very much an asset to the community and we don’t want to see that stream dry up and lose the aesthetics," he said.
Less water in East Canyon Creek in western Summit County also means higher sewer costs for citizens, Luers added.
State officials use the amount of water in the stream above the district’s treatment plant in Jeremy Ranch to determine how treated wastewater must be discharged into East Canyon Creek.
"We want to acquire water rights so that we can maintain some small flow in the creek above the treatment plant so that the state doesn’t require us to treat our wastewater beyond what is reasonable," Luers said.
But the creek must have water when sewer effluent from Park City and Snyderville residents is discharged into the stream.
"If there is no water in the creek our treatment costs go up dramatically and those costs are passed onto our customers," Luers said, insisting eminent domain wouldn’t be used by the district to acquire waters rights in the Basin.
SB95, however, is "extremely" controversial, Luers said.
"Anytime you attempt to change the laws associated with water rights in the state of Utah it takes a lot of effort and it’s never a rubberstamp," he said, claiming safeguards in the bill protect other water users. "It’s a big change to allow water to flow downstream and not be used for some other purpose."
With SB95 expected to die before its considered by the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, who represents Park City on Utah’s Capitol Hill, couldn’t say this week how he would vote.
As chair of the standing committee, however, in an interview Tuesday, Sen. Darin Peterson, a Nephi Republican who is against the bill, said he is trying to prevent the committee from debating the legislation.
"It’s a very dangerous precedent to set. I have it in the committee’s possession but as the chair I just may hold that bill forever," Peterson said. "Water is such a precious resource and it’s such a finite resource and to have the ability to have water just remain in the stream openly and end up in the Great Salt Lake and evaporate is not a healthy policy."
Governments could compete unfairly with citizens for water in rural Utah if SB95 is passed, Peterson insists.
"I’ve never been able to stomach the idea that we give government more deference than we give private individuals who are paying taxes on what they generate with that water," he said. "As soon as we do this it would spiral out of control."
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