Cedar Valley water sources developed
byAshley Langston, Reporter
Feb 04, 2015 | 226 views | 0 | 0 | |
Coal Creek flows through Cedar City. It provides most of the recharge to the valley’s underground aquifer and provides irrigation for farmland. The creek was a significant reason Cedar City’s settlers chose the community’s location. | Photo by Ashley Langston
IRON COUNTY – Since settlers were sent from Salt Lake City to build communities in Iron County, water has been a challenging issue, and while irrigation and the pumping of water from an underground aquifer have allowed the area to thrive, the challenges continue.
When Cedar City and its surrounding communities were first founded, residents were able to use Coal Creek, other streams, and natural springs in the area to live and grow crops. However, as more settlers arrived, residents knew there would not be enough water in the streams to support the increased population all year, every year.
Jack Barnett, of Barnett Intermountain Water Consulting, a company working with the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, said early settlers began using a system first adopted by miners called “first in time, first in right,” a water right principle that continues in Utah. The first water put to use, or the senior priority water right, is entitled to all the water necessary to fill that right before the next priority right receives any water at all.
With a limited supply of water, good water rights became valuable and were treated as real property, first recognized by church courts and then by territorial law, he said. As Utah moved into statehood, the office of the state engineer was created by the legislature to administer the use of all water in the state.
“In 1903, legislation was passed that declared that the waters of the state were owned by the citizens of the state and the state would hold this natural resource in trust for the citizenry and administer water rights granted by the state,” Barnett said. “The legislation also recognized all uses of surface water made before 1903 and required that all future surface water rights must be established by the filing of an application (a proposal) with the state engineer.”
Over time, residents learned they could drill wells in the valley to access water for their families and livestock. They then drilled larger wells, installed pumps and began using water from the underground aquifer, also known as groundwater, to grow their crops. In 1934, legislation was passed that required residents to apply for groundwater rights through the state engineer. Water rights were granted through the state office, but it was unknown how much water was actually available underground.
After residents noticed they had to drill deeper to pump water and aquifer levels were declining, wells were established to observe and measure the decline.
“By 1966 the state engineer published a brief report which found that the use of the groundwater had exceeded the natural recharge to the groundwater resource in Cedar Valley,” Barnett said.
More water was being used than was going into the ground. Now, significantly more water rights exist than there is actually water available to fill those rights. Even though not all water rights are fully used, too much water continues to be removed from the aquifer, drawing the water table down. This is referred to as “mining” the aquifer.
Statistics from a 2014 Utah Geological Survey report show that from all sources, about 33,500 acre-feet of water goes into the aquifer in an average year, and about 42,700 acre-feet are removed each year, mining the aquifer of more than 9,000 acre-feet each year (an acre-foot of water is about 325,851 gallons, which is approximately a football field buried in one foot of water).
In addition to dealing with the already declining water levels, officials in Iron County must look to the future and plan for growth.
According to a report by the Utah Foundation published in September 2014, Iron County is expected to see a population increase of 129 percent between 2010 and 2050. The population is projected to jump from 46,163 to about 105,797.
The entity tasked with making sure Iron County does not run out of water is the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, formed in 1997. To learn more about the district and what it is doing to preserve the area’s future, watch for the next articles in this weekly series.