Bear River Blues | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

September 07, 2016 News » Cover Story

Bear River Blues 

With water already flowing from taps, why are Cache County leaders eager to form a water district?

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With temperatures hanging in the mid 90s, the meticulous greens and sprawling fairways at the Logan Country Club were sparsely populated on a Wednesday afternoon in late August.

The golfers who were busy working their backswings and mastering their putts, though, needed to avoid a set of water sprinklers dousing the shining green grass.

A few blocks further west on U.S. Highway 89, toward Utah State University and the city of Logan, the lawn in front of the U.S. Forest Service station was also being sprayed with water. The same scene was visible on Aggie Drive, where co-eds packing books sidestepped sprinklers drenching the school's lawns.

Indeed, the Cache Valley's verdant fields of alfalfa and quaint communities sandwiched between the Bear River Mountains to the east and the Wellsville Mountains to the west, are lousy with water. From these mountains flow the Bear River, Blacksmith Fork River and Logan River—not to mention their smaller offshoots, including the Little Bear and Little Logan rivers.

For more than a century now, the communities that rely on these waterways have managed to keep the taps flowing and farmers irrigating without the assistance of what's known in Utah as a water conservancy district. But as this November's general election arrives, Cache County voters will take their third crack at forming such a district, which politicians and engineering firms say is needed to protect the valley's water resources.

These districts, of which 21 exist across the state, deliver water to many Utahns through a complex web of water infrastructure, which is financed, in part, through property-tax assessments.


Water conservancy districts are also some of the state's most powerful entities. During the 2015 and 2016 Utah legislative sessions, water districts successfully lobbied—through a bevy of hired lobbyists and with their own heft—for the creation of a funding mechanism that would allow lawmakers to begin stashing cash away for the day when a multi-billion-dollar pipeline will be built to draw Colorado River water from Lake Powell and pump it 140 miles uphill for the golf courses, lawns and faucets of St. George.

Even so, Cache Valley residents have managed to avoid the creation of a water district, shunning a level of government that is sometimes criticized for lack of transparency, and leaving the management of water infrastructure to municipalities and Cache County. These days, though, could be numbered.

Cache County Water Manager Bob Fotheringham says the time has arrived for Cache Valley to have its own water district—an entity that he says will place residents of this mountain valley on an even playing field with those along the Wasatch Front who are represented by the Central Utah, Jordan Valley and Weber Basin water conservancy districts.

"I believe that the benefit of having the district is so we can manage water better than we've managed it in the past and meet the needs of Cache Valley," Fotheringham says.

Fotheringham's enthusiasm for forming a water district seems to be shared by many of his fellow government colleagues across the Cache Valley. Eighteen municipal governments voted unanimously to allow the water district ballot measure to be voted on this November. A single dissenting vote was cast when the 19th municipality, River Heights, took up the matter says Craig Buttars, Cache County's executive officer.

And across the valley's front yards, there are not yet any lawn signs indicating that an election is approaching, let alone that a decision to alter the way water is managed in the valley will be wedged someplace among the presidential state and county picks.

But not everyone is singing the praises of a water district. Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, says that the formation of a district will—just as is sometimes the case in other areas—be little more than another governmental barrier separating the people from their water. Frankel also says a water district in Cache County will do what other water districts do: assess property taxes, amass millions of dollars and spend that money on water projects, specifically on the largely undeveloped Bear River, over which state leaders have been salivating for decades.

"The reason why you can get a glass of water today in Cache County has nothing to do with a water district," Frankel says. "This is about how much more in taxes Cache County taxpayers should pay and how much more empire engineering firms want to build at the expense of those taxpayers."


Awash in Water
The apparent lack of opposition to the formation of a water district in Cache Valley is hardly by accident. On two prior occasions, Cache County voters have struck down attempts to form a conservancy district. According to county and state officials, these voters have never felt comfortable forming a district made up of appointed individuals who have the ability to assess taxes. In effect, Utah's water conservancy districts use taxpayer money to build infrastructure like pipelines and dams, pay salaries and lobbyists and even build new buildings. But when a citizen has beef with how this money is spent, there's no recourse at the ballot box.

"It's certainly true that water districts are a perfect example of taxation without representation," says Dan McCool, director of the University of Utah's Environment and Sustainability Studies program. "They can tax, they can borrow, but they are in most cases unelected by the public at large."

To soothe those accusations, state lawmakers tweaked the law governing water districts and other special service districts in 2010, making it possible for their boards to be elected.

If Cache County residents form a water conservancy district in November, Fotheringham says it will be one of a kind: Ten of its 11 members will be elected just to sit on the board. The 11th person will be appointed to ensure that the interests of agriculture are represented.

"There will be no other district in the state that will be operated like this district because it is a new way to manage," Fotheringham says. "I think we've resolved those issues for people and I believe it's going to be transparent; it's going to be accountable and it's going to do what the people in the area of Cache Valley want it to do, and that's what we need."

Fotheringham, who was hired in 2008 to be the county's first water manager, has been pushing the formation of a water conservancy district for some time. In 2013, he and the county hired Idaho-based J-U-B Engineers to help it formulate a water master plan.

In that plan, J-U-B, which Fotheringham says acts as a sort of de facto engineering firm for the county, concludes that the most efficient way for the county to manage its water resources is to do so by forming a water conservancy district.


"With the need to protect our existing water resources and provide water for future growth a conservancy district is needed now to generate the funds sufficient to implement the objectives outlined in this plan," the report states.

With the report in hand, Fotheringham and Cache County for the past two years have been busy garnering consensus among the valley's municipalities. Lending a helping hand is a firm called The Langdon Group, a government and public-affairs entity that is a subsidiary of J-U-B Engineers.

Josh King, a facilitator and project manager with Langdon, has been helping spearhead the county's efforts to form the conservancy district. A key piece of this puzzle was the formation of the Bridgerland Water Conservancy Work Group, which consisted of 12 individuals whose ultimate goal was to agree on a series of bylaws for the future water conservancy district.

After multiple meetings, the Bridgerland group approved a set of bylaws in April.

King says that the Bridgerland group was "diverse," and that all of the meetings were open to the public. "We tried to create a process that was open, transparent and participatory because we wanted something better [than some other public processes]," King says.

While government entities often hire specialists to assist with the preparation of master plans, Frankel says he's troubled that an engineering firm like J-U-B, which has a section on its website that declares the firm's "thirst for water projects," would be tasked with chiseling the county's 375-page master plan. Once this was completed, Frankel says he questions the legitimacy of the county then turning to the Langdon group to build consensus among the public and to promote J-U-B's findings.

"The Cache County water district ballot initiative is naked special-interest politics at its most obvious," Frankel says. "The formation of a water district is to benefit engineering companies. They've gotten over $1 million in just the last few years, which is an investment for future billions for Bear River development."

Fotheringham says that J-U-B won't benefit from future water projects any more than other engineering firms. Likewise, King says that over the past couple of years, he hasn't fielded any concerns that a conflict might exist between J-U-B, Langdon and the county.

The Rivers Council, Frankel says, has been filing open-records requests pertaining to Cache County's contracts with J-U-B and Langdon. The contracts show that since 2013, when the master plan effort was hatched, the county has paid J-U-B nearly $1.3 million for its services.

Fotheringham didn't dispute this number, saying that the county spends additional sums of money each year on him and the water department he currently runs. "It costs money to manage water," he says. "I think it's been well worth what they've spent."

Frankel's fears about a water conservancy district aren't simply based on the fact that these entities exist. Rather, it is nested in what these entities so often do: build water projects.

And in Cache Valley, it's difficult to avoid talking about water, development and growth without talking about the Bear River.

While Fotheringham and King say that the formation of a water conservancy district is not being done simply to develop the Bear River, Frankel says that if one reads between the lines, this is exactly what the district will aim to do.

Cache County and Fotheringham have endeavored to frame the water district as a way to promote water conservation and gain a more politically powerful seat at the table when conversations arise about developing water projects. Fotheringham also says that if communities in Cache County don't form a district, they could see their water rights stolen by downstream users along the Wasatch Front.

Cache County Executive Officer Craig Buttars puts it this way: "The reality can be scary, and the reality is we could lose our water if we don't have a way to properly manage it."


When it comes to conservation, the state's proliferation of water conservancy districts has been unsuccessful at reining in Utah's robust consumption, which ranks the state as the highest—or in other parlance, the most wasteful—water user in the nation.

And Cache County, like other parts of Utah, is not actually running out of water. In 2015, the Utah State Legislative Auditor released an investigation that showed how state water managers had relied on faulty data to project the state's future water needs. Among the findings was that Utah's baseline water usage, pegged at 220 gallons of water per person, per day, was drastically higher than in other Western states, and could be inaccurate. Additionally, the auditors found that water managers had failed to account for the growing amount of water that becomes available as agricultural land is paved over; houses, streets and sidewalks use less water than irrigated fields.

The report, in many instances, confirmed what Frankel had been alleging for some time: that Utah is awash in water, and could provide for the state's projected booming growth if only it actually conserved a little of what it has already developed.

The audit, and Frankel's assertions, would seem to contradict the dire water shortage predictions flowing from water managers who are eager to tap into Lake Powell via a pipeline and do the same to the Bear, which the Legislature pegged for development in 1991 when it approved the Bear River Development Act.

That act stated that up to 220,000 acre-feet of water could be developed and impounded from the Bear River, with 50,000 acre-feet apiece going to the Jordan Valley and Weber Basin conservancy districts, and 60,000 acre-feet apiece going to the Bear River and Cache water conservancy districts. But because Cache County does not yet—and did not in 1991—have a water conservancy district, its allotment would be allowed to be managed and developed by the county.

This means, Frankel says, that Buttars and Fotheringham are incorrect when they say a water conservancy district would somehow protect the Cache Valley's allotment of the Bear River.

"In truth, the specific code allows Cache County to develop its water without a water district," Frankel says. "It's pretty clear that that's a red herring argument to collect property taxes and build empire."


Bear River Blues
Erecting dams, impounding water in reservoirs and building pipelines on the Bear River are not incredibly popular ideas in Cache County.

Realizing this, the Langdon Group's King and Fotheringham both say that it became clear that the formation of a water conservancy district needed to have as its focus something other than Bear River development.

King says a decision was made to "shift away from focus of Bear River allocation to more of planning and looking at longer-term conservation and protection and management and stability of water rights and supply."

"The focus isn't on getting the Bear River developed, but protecting that allocation that's been allotted to Cache County and having a voice at the table where decisions are made regarding that allocation," King says.

What Fotheringham and other Cache County leaders understand is that the Wasatch Front's voracious population growth might soon come knocking on Cache Valley's door, thirsty for the rivers that are the lifeblood of the area.

A water conservancy district, they insist, will help them fortify their water supplies and plan for their own future growth and use of Bear River water.

And when Fotheringham and other proponents of forming a water district say they want a seat at the table, they're referring to the State Capitol, where, when water is the topic, legislators love nothing more than hearing from, and deferring to, the expert opinions that flow forth from the state's water district managers.

State Senator Lyle Hillyard, a Republican from North Logan, has long been a champion for his region. He says that a water district will ensure that the concerns of Cache County residents are heard at the state level.

"I just think Cache County needs to be at the table and I think a water conservancy district puts us at the table equally with everybody else," Hillyard says.

Anyone who fears that a water conservancy district in Cache County will behave similar to other water districts and rib the Legislature for new water projects is mistaken, Fotheringham says. Because the board will be elected, he says a mechanism will exist for the public to hold its water district accountable for its actions.

Fotheringham says the district will make better decisions as a result of increased public involvement. "When we create the Cache water district as it's formulated, I believe that that district will make better management decisions than any other in the state," he says.

It is unclear whether Fotheringham's insistence on forming a water district is an implicit condemnation of his and the county's inability to manage water, or a similarly couched statement against the state's other water districts, which, unlike the possible district in Cache County, appear to be levying taxes on the public minus a mechanism to be held accountable.

This fact—that Cache County has been managing its water for all modern time on its own—is striking to Richard Toth, a retired professor at Utah State University in the Department of Environment and Society. Toth says he recalls the previous two attempts to form a water district, and that while the taxation without representation question appears to be answered, he hasn't seen any of the hard data he would like to about how a district would be better for the environment than the county's present system of managing water.

"We've got water and I think there are responsible people here who are managing it quite well, and I attribute that to Bob Fotheringham," Toth says.

Toth notes that once a water conservancy district is formed, it will go on collecting tax monies forever. According to Cache County's water master plan, the tax levy would be about .002 percent, which would line the district's bank account with roughly $1.1 million each year—a good chunk more than the county's $185,000 water budget in 2014.

"What do we need it for?" Toth asks of a water district. "What is this extra tax going to do? I'll tell you what it's going to do; it's going to build a lot of water resource projects that are going to benefit a very limited number of people, not the general public at all. They're not going to create more water, I'll tell you that. There's only so much water."


Water Taker
If and when actual reservoirs are erected along the Bear River to store water, there will be inevitable impacts downstream.

In the Bear River basin, these impacts will be harshly felt in the federally managed Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the Great Salt Lake, which receives an estimated 60 percent of its water from the Bear.

And that 60 percent is hardly enough to keep the lake full. State officials have said the lake is at its lowest level since the 1960s.

As one of the largest stop-offs for migratory birds west of the Mississippi, the Great Salt Lake's health has massive impacts on the natural world. A diminished Bear River that, like all of the state's rivers and streams, is already seeing drought-reduced flows from light snowpacks, would be further reduced by dams upstream.

If birds are of no concern, then the Wasatch Front's air quality might be. The saline waters of the Great Salt Lake are the depository for every single drop of wastewater produced in Utah, Salt Lake and much of Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties.

These polluted and nutrient-rich streams, like the Jordan River, that flow into the Great Salt Lake, are often joined by streams of mining wastes, like selenium, arsenic and other heavy metals, that are presently being filtered out of polluted aquifers in the Salt Lake Valley, and pumped into the Great Salt Lake.

If it continues to dry, some fear that the Wasatch Front's foul air quality will become even more toxic as pollutants once sealed beneath the lake's waters become airborne.

The University of Utah's McCool says that he understands the reasons for forming a water conservancy district: money and power.

What he hopes is not lost upon Cache County leaders, farmers and regular citizens is that water projects do not create water, they simply move water. And, as fresh water resources become increasingly overused and disappear, he says it becomes difficult to talk about taking one action without considering all of the other resulting actions.

"We can't talk about any of these things in isolation," McCool says, noting that by taking water away from Cache County, growth will be limited there and flourish elsewhere, and that by lowering the Great Salt Lake, the state will see an air pollution problem that will make current air quality issues "look pretty tame."

For his part, Fotheringham insists that if Cache County forms a water district made up of publicly elected officials, it will be able to make decisions that are often uncharacteristic of water districts.

But if a water district is formed in November, it is a little bit fuzzy as to whom exactly it will sell water, since water is already being provided to residents and farmers in the Cache Valley. This issue, says Fotheringham, will work itself out in time.

Time, though, has a way of working to favor water managers.

Even with the recent legislative audit on water, and the efforts of organizations like the Rivers Council to plead for actual conservation as a method of providing water, rather than the destruction of rivers, the Legislature has made big moves over the past two years to once and for all begin utilizing its allotment of Colorado River water in Lake Powell, and further taming the Bear.


In 2015, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, successfully created an account—the Water Infrastructure Restricted Account—which in the waning days of the session, received a $5 million deposit of taxpayer money.

In 2016, Adams, a developer, was back at it. He gutted several transportation earmarks, diverting a large portion of the funding into the water account, which by 2023, will warehouse $165 million.

Earnest and costly steps to build new water projects, whether they are needed or not, are in the works. And Fotheringham says he's tired of hearing planners who live outside Cache Valley make plans for the water that flows through it.

"It is water, and if you don't organize yourself to manage it, then someone else will, and they have," Fotheringham says. "Certainly now, we're getting large enough within our own area that if we want to manage water smartly, we've got to figure out where to develop infrastructure in our valley to move water around where it's needed, so we don't spend where we don't need to spend."

There is one inconvenient visual that Cache County leaders eager to form a new layer of government to oversee water issues will not soon be able to overcome: Water has long been delivered across the valley without the increased taxes that will come with a water district. And just like the last time that voters turned down forming a water district, that water will continue to flow.

One thing is certain: If a water district is formed and its elected board decides to begin assessing taxes, boatloads of money are suddenly going to materialize for the purpose of managing Cache County's water.

And, if the prevailing wisdom in today's society is that unless water is used it is wasted, the same is almost always true for money.

"If the idea is to pay engineering firms exorbitant sums of tax money, let's start a water district," Frankel says. "You can see what's really happening with Bear River development; it's just another engineering special interest ready to feed at the public feeding trough."

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