Unitization in Utah? What could that be?
Last week I posted on the great time I had at a water conference in Utah (28 Hours in Utah...).
Prior to arriving in Salt Lake City I'd read a story in the 10 May 2010 issue of the High Country News (now requires a subscription to read) about the passage of a bill to allow the residents of southwestern Utah's Escalante Valley to manage their own groundwater. At the conference I then heard a talk (via phone) by State Sen. Dennis Stowell (R), the main sponsor of SB 20, who told the story of the bill.
What motivated the Escalante Valley folks to seek such authority? To make a long story short: the state had overallocated the groundwater in the valley and wanted the residents to cut back to a pumping level more consistent with the aquifer's sustainable yield. Subsidence was even occurring, a tell-tale sign of excessive pumping.
The residents could not reach an agreement with then-State Engineer Jerry Olds, even after they took the unprecedented move of pooling their water rights so all pumpers would 'share the pain' of any reductions. Had they not done that, some might have lost their water rights completely. One for all and all for one, as it were.
Here is a Utah Division of Water Rights site with a lot of information on the area's groundwater. Here is a link to a map showing water level declines. You can also view animation to show groundwater declines since 1946.
After the impasse with Olds, who resigned in 2008, the residents sought legislative relief, and that's when Sen. Stowell entered the picture and got SB 20 passed and signed by the governor. So now the residents can establish their own pumping rules, under the watchful eye of the state.
But what struck me about the Escalante Valley case is that this is unitization, a management concept my colleague Todd Jarvis espouses. What the Escalante Valley pumpers are doing is similar to what oil companies do: they pool their interests and manage the pumping of the petroleum reservoir to benefit all. The valley folks are pooling their water rights to benefit all and also to protect junior water rights-holders from losing their water.
Here is Todd's most recent presentation on unitization as applied to groundwater management:
I think what the Escalante Valley folks are doing is good. Questions need to be answered and it will be a few years before the groundwater district is realized. For example, the boundaries have not yet been set and the management plan details need to be defined. Surrounding areas will watch to ensure that the new district does not impair their water supplies. The new district will also have taxing authority. Will it be misused? Will the 'collegiality' among water users dissipate?
We'll all be watching the Escalante Valley experiment unfold, and I, for one, hope it succeeds.
"I try not to cuss at the mud. Without water, none of us would be here." -- Cody Staheli, Escalante Valley farmer, quoted in the article