Summit County evaluates resource protection plans, decides more work needs to be done
Drinking water for millions of Utahns originates in the mountains of Summit County, and county officials have said protecting that resource is one of their highest priorities.
On Monday, county officials heard two different plans to bolster water protection. But in both instances, they decided more work was needed to deliver on county goals.
In the morning, the County Council approved a Wildfire Preparedness Plan, with the caveat that the plan does not deliver the tangible steps councilors are looking for to reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire in the county.
In addition to imperiling life and property, wildfires pose a significant threat to water sources by inundating them with runoff like ash, soil and debris.
In the evening, the Summit County Board of Health decided to delay a decision on a proposed ordinance to protect groundwater after hearing strong pushback from East Side agriculturalists that the rules as written would threaten their livelihoods.
Both elected bodies committed to future work sessions to further the goals of protecting the county’s natural resources.
In the special meeting that morning, the County Council approved the Summit County Wildfire Preparedness Plan, a 40-page document that Fire Warden Bryce Boyer described as a “50,000-foot look” at fire mitigation in the county. Counties are newly required to have such a plan in place to receive state funding to fight catastrophic fires.
It was approved unanimously, but councilors asked for more work to be done to identify, prioritize and estimate the cost of specific projects that would lessen the risk of a catastrophic fire in Summit County.
County Council Chair Roger Armstrong said the Wildfire Preparedness Plan is adequate if its goal is to satisfy a state requirement, but did not provide a sufficient roadmap for making the county safer with specific projects.
“It feels like we escaped wonderfully this year,” Armstrong said, referring to the mild wildfire season. “I’m not sure we’re going to escape next year the same way, and I don’t know what we took a lot of steps this year – on this down year.”
Boyer said the county’s plan is a guiding document for area municipalities to follow, and that the localized plans would have the specifics the county asked for. He added that good work has been done this year in fire mitigation like education programs to teach homeowners how to harden their properties against fire and the expansion of the wood-chipping program to help clear vegetation.
But Armstrong questioned the smaller jurisdictions’ ability to craft fire preparedness plans with limited resources. He said he wanted to see a multi-jurisdictional effort — including groups outside municipal governments like home-owners associations — to create a plan with specific initiatives ranked by importance with estimated costs and possible funding sources.
“We need to … establish for 2020 some sort of program that we’re going to start reducing fuels, or mitigation — all of these things you’ve identified,” Armstrong said. “We need to come up with a 2020 plan with some measurable metrics so we can understand if we’re actually accomplishing something.”
Later that evening, in a packed conference room at the Summit County Health Department, dozens of people came to discuss a proposed new groundwater protection ordinance, including representatives from large and small water utilities, subject-matter experts like engineers and hydrogeologists and many East Side agriculturalists. The proposed ordinance would impose new rules on how development is evaluated in areas that surround public water sources like wells.
The farmers and ranchers said they supported the goal of protecting water sources, but that the proposed ordinance threatens their operations and adds another regulation that has the potential to stifle growth.
Mike Brown, who said he is one of the last dairy farmers in the county, said he was told the ordinance targeted developers and new development, but the way it reads, it seems to target agriculture.
“As I read this, it was an ordinance proposed specifically for ag,” Brown said. “It talks about the storage of manure — I don’t know any developers talking about storage of manure.”
The rule would add another step in the planning process for new or expanding development. It would require written consent from water suppliers for a project that would affect groundwater near a well at much more stringent standards than are currently applied.
The Board of Health recommended the formation of a subcommittee with representatives from different sides of the issue — ranchers, water suppliers, Health Department staff and subject-matter experts — to report back at December’s meeting with proposed changes.
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A ransomware attack hit the Mountain Regional Water District last month. The district provides water to much of the Snyderville Basin. Its general manager said the attack did not threaten the water supply or access private customer information.