Water Rights 

Utahns are in for a dry future

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Dale Elrod and I sit in Diva’s Cupcakes drinking coffee. An eavesdropper would be surprised by the subject of our earnest conversation. We talk about irrigation for an hour. Then, Elrod leads me out the front door to the sidewalk on 3300 South. He kneels down and pries up a large metal plate. I peer into the exposed hole. There, to my surprise, courses a ditchful of brownish water diverted from Mill Creek. As he pulls debris from a steel grate, rushing air from passing cars tugs at his ponytail. The system needs daily attention, he laments, as he fits the plate back in place.

It has been a tough spring for water management. As the president of the Lower Mill Creek Irrigation Company (LMIC), a volunteer-run nonprofit cooperative. Elrod spends some part of every day minding a triangular network of ditches bounded by Evergreen Junior High School, Brickyard Plaza and Graystone condominiums. He works without pay to ensure the company’s 132 shareholders receive their weekly allotment of irrigation water.

The allocation of those shares dates to 1905, but LMIC (and more than 600 other cooperatives like it) traces its lineage to the water master appointed by the earliest Mormon pioneers. Salt Lake City is, in the words of Wallace Stegner, a community founded by faith and nourished by irrigation. Beginning with the diversion of City Creek, irrigation ditches were the first utility engineered in the valley, and prior to 1852, water distribution was a bishop’s bailiwick.

Use of water has since been codified. Utah law recognizes “the right of the first user” of a water source like Mill Creek as superseding claims by abutting landowners. The water is a public asset, but a 2010 law stipulates the streambed may be privately owned and posted against public use. In such instances, you may float on posted, private land provided you don’t trespass by touching the bottom of the stream. It is a most peculiar arrangement, I say. The public owns the water running out of Mill Creek Canyon. Where the stream passes through backyards, homeowners own the land over which the stream flows. LMIC has “first-user” rights dating to the 19th century, entitling it to take a percentage of the water and sell it to its shareholders.

Elrod listens patiently, but when it comes to water use, he is more a romantic, attracted by “the oddity of living in a suburb with access to irrigation water.” Then he adds, “We’re holding onto an older sense of community which is something more than landowners’ rights.”

But LMIC’s 100-year-old delivery system is tenuous, he says. It requires volunteers with diplomatic skills, a watchful eye and the willingness to wield shovel and bucksaw to clear obstructions from miles of ditches. Doug Nelson, a sometime LMIC director, has been doing it for 30 years. “It’s a piece of history I don’t want to abandon,” he says. “Too much is gone. We need to preserve what pioneers built.”

The LMIC board comprises seven directors—all volunteers. Some are retirees; most have day jobs. Elrod teaches film and media studies at the University of Utah. Nelson grows basil for Harmons. Another, Jan Striefel, is a landscape architect. LMIC controls 393 90-minute shares of water from Mill Creek. The cooperative’s operation syncs with the garden cycle, running from mid-April to mid-October, and the annual budget comes from $50-per-share assessments. A weir diverts their water into ditches, half of which are covered over. Where the ditches cross private property, LMIC has long-standing easements.

Water is the lifeblood of fast-growing desert cities like Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas. They compete with agriculture for water derived from snowmelt. Utah’s urbanites have an insatiable thirst. Each uses more than 200 gallons a day, three times the national average. Most of it is pushed through sprinklers to transform a tiny, parched plot into a Victorian garden. Meanwhile, the Interior Department is projecting that climate change—regardless of the cause—will manifest in drier summers, warmer winters and reduced snowfall. In other words, Utah’s growing population will have 10 percent less water in the reservoirs, which translates to less water to flush toilets and no water for luxuriant lawns.

Even thirstier is Las Vegas, where more than $100 million has been spent incentivizing homeowners to xeriscape their yards. By contrast, Utah plays the grasshopper to the Nevada ants. While Las Vegas busily schemes to siphon groundwater from beneath Snake Valley, we are as oblivious as the grasshopper to the coming winter of scarcity. A worst-case scenario, dictated by the law of supply and demand, puts water beyond the reach of the poor. What then? Would the state government act to subsidize water on moral grounds? Or would its Waddoupsian response be, “Let them drink XanGo”? As a hedge, some of LMIC’s shareholders are paying the $50 annual assessment even though they no longer take water from the ditch. “People hold on because water rights might become valuable,” says Elrod.

I suppose you might regard LMIC as an anachronism, given its urban setting. “We are part of a changing culture,” Elrod concedes. “Backyards used to be a workspace with vegetable gardens. Now, they tend to be manicured landscapes.” Nevertheless, he believes that by providing low-cost, untreated water to some of these greenscapes, LMIC helps to reduce demand on the city’s culinary system. It is a trifling reduction, to be sure, but a forward-looking one. By midcentury, the Wasatch Front will have many more people and much less water. Coping with that imbalance will require a post-lawn culture change based on conservation. Implementation instructions are handwritten on the wall in Las Vegas. 

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