County investigated for alleged illegal water diversion
State water officials are investigating whether employees at Summit County’s Mountain Regional Water Special Service District harmed the environment or broke the law by allegedly excavating ditches in the Weber River near Peoa.
"We’re trying to figure out where things went wrong," said Ross Hansen, a region engineer at the Office of the Utah State Engineer. "Have they damaged some species or anything like that? That’s the kind of thing we’re trying to look into and understand."
When shallow wells near the river failed to produce enough water for the county’s Lost Creek Canyon Pipeline, the bank of the Weber River was breached in two places so surface water could be diverted into nearby wells, said John Flitton, an attorney for Summit Water Distribution Co. who frequently criticizes Mountain Regional.
The Lost Creek pipeline delivers water from South Summit to the gated Promontory subdivision.
"Enforcement actions could be taken for illegal alterations of streams," said Hansen, who helps enforce water rights on the Weber River. "We obviously do not want a situation where people or companies or corporations are doing things and using the old adage of, it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission."
After reporting the incident to Hansen in April, Flitton filed a lawsuit June 30 against Summit County that asked Judge Bruce Lubeck to declare that Mountain Regional officials violated their permit by diverting water from the river.
"Mountain Regional’s water supply/demand study overstates its source capacity by including the unauthorized Weber River diversions," the lawsuit states.
But without the illegal diversion, Summit County wouldn’t have enough water to meet its growth demands in Snyderville, Flitton said, adding that Mountain Regional’s recent rating from the county’s water concurrency officer that includes the diversion is invalid.
Mountain Regional General Manager Andy Armstrong refused to comment about the allegations when reached Monday.
Summit County Attorney David Brickey claimed he was not aware state officials were investigating Mountain Regional.
"[Summit Water] wants to eliminate the state engineer and they want the judge to do basically the job of the state engineer," Brickey said.
With Mountain Regional aggressively competing with Summit Water for customers in western Summit County, a lot rides on the investigation’s outcome, Hansen said.
"Summit Water is attempting to accuse Mountain Regional of getting water illegally," he said, adding, "they feel like they’re being damaged financially."
The actions of Summit County officials, however, also damaged the environment, Flitton said.
"They cut into the river," he said. "No one looked at what the impacts would be to the riparian vegetation and the ecosystem."
But according to Hansen, the area can likely be rehabilitated.
"They can’t get away from the fact that they breached the stream in two places," Flitton countered. "I think that Mountain Regional is desperate and I think that they are not playing by the rules."
Hansen hasn’t determined whether the alleged diversions violated the law.
"I would definitely be amiss to tell you that they have broken the law," Hansen said. "Did they have permission to do everything they did? That’s what we’re trying to figure out."
Mountain Regional officials claimed staffers at the federal Army Corps of Engineers and in the state engineer’s office approved the diversions, he said, adding that what penalty, if any, Mountain Regional could face is unclear.
"We don’t want Promontory not to be able to irrigate their golf courses but we want people to be held accountable," Flitton said. "They’re going to have to fix the problem."
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