Utah’s Public Lands and Water Battles: Still Heated, Still Expensive

Mountain Watershed in Utah’s High Country – File Photo

The players and the associated costs haven’t changed. As early as 2015 and into the summer of the following year, Utah’s rural caucus was working with sublet attorneys who are responsible for assisting the state in its efforts to take over the revenue potential of over 70% of Utah that is historically been owned by the federal government. Appearing before the Rural Caucus last Friday was Sean Reyes, Utah’s Attorney General, to offer a status report on the legal effort Utah is waging. The issue is ongoing for many reasons and the meter is running.

“Preeminent Issue” 

Referring to the public lands matter as one of the state of Utah’s “preeminent issues,” “General Reyes,” as he’s respectfully referred to in these circles, reported on “a recent victory in appellate court” brought by the state’s Public Lands Policy Coordination Office (PLPCO) headed by Kathleen Clark. Utah taxpayers continue to fund PLPCO’s annual budget for litigating controversial RS2477 road matters at $3M with no end in sight, although recent victories are claimed, often by both sides.

RS2377 rural “roads”  often consist of little more than ruts in a barren area – if designated a “road,” however, the designation effectively prevents the land from receiving various federal designations that could prevent further development. To those like San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, these issues are worth losing your liberty over.

Additionally, the same attorneys who had appeared in 2015 faced some serious questions about taxpayer spending and accountability on expenses that they billed back to the State of Utah were on hand for the rural caucus.

The Center for Accountability had flagged prior expenses as being “extravagant,” during interim meetings in June of 2016, George Wentz of the Davillier Law firm in New Orleans, Louisiana and now in Sandpoint, Idaho where Wentz now lives and John Howard of JW Howard Attorneys in San Diego, California, appeared again last Friday in a bid to obtain the blessing of the rural caucus to continue the fight.

Their testimony featured back patting and had a congratulatory tone when it came to Utah’s efforts to litigate the public lands issue, now further emboldened by a Republican administration that seems to favor policies geared towards reducing federal regulations in regards to the stewardship of land in the West.

Members of the rural caucus include an assortment of powerful Utah legislators, including Representatives Carl Albrecht (Republican – Richfield) and Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan) as well as Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, (Republican – Monroe), and  Senators David Hinkins, (Republican – Orangeville), and Kevin Van Tassell (Republican – Vernal).

Because such “informal” caucus meetings don’t fall under state reporting laws no state provided audio/video are available for public review. Even many media outlets are often absent during the regularly scheduled 6:30 AM breakfasts.

In addition to Attorney General Reyes’ presentation, the caucus heard from Val Hale, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) who addressed specific rural issues such as progress on the Governor’s goal of 25,000 jobs in the near future and initiatives focused on rural Utah. Representative Albrecht updated the caucus members and assembled special interests (read lobbyists) and public stakeholders on his efforts to bring HJR 1 – Joint Resolution Urging Exemption from the Antiquities Act to fruition. That resolution is coupled with Albrecht’s HB390 – Rural Economic Development Incentives, which accounts for $2 million in ongoing appropriations from the state’s General Fund for rural Utah. A first-time observer is tempted to be overwhelmed by all of the work and funding requests being presented. Others in the room often include Luanne Adams,  (Republican – Box Elder County) who serves as Utah’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Food as well as assorted county commissioners from throughout the state.

Utah Representative Mike Noel (R-Kanab) is sponsoring a bill to take over Salt Lake City’s water

“Water is for Fightin’ Over via ‘Extraterritorial Amendments'”

In the Desert West of the United States the matter of water rights, reclamation, and development – particularly for those in rural Utah is a big deal. The arid west is mostly desert, punctuated by settlements that became developments and eventually cities and towns where agriculture, extraction and commerce could be collectively facilitated. The more sparse populations of smaller towns bring governmental assistance through entities like the Six County Association of Governments in central Utah and the Bear River Association of Governments in the north. Both organizations are composed of several county governments, and with their strength in numbers, they coordinate Community Development Block Grants from the federal government and other programs when it’s more efficient to do it regionally.

One of the most regular and prominent participants on the Rural Caucus agenda is Representative Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab) whose expertise comes from his ongoing role with the Kane County Water Conservancy District and years of service with the Bureau of Land Management.

Noel’s most controversial effort which went into the Natural Resources, Agriculture and the Environment Committee, was his HB135 – Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Amendments, which was held in the committee late last Friday ahead of the Presidents’ Day Weekend.

Not to be outmaneuvered by committee members like Rep Joel Briscoe (Democrat – Salt Lake City) on this measure attempting to take over the rights to Salt Lake City’s high country water, Noel graciously agreed but then re-introduced a third substituted version the following Wednesday which exited the  Committee on a 10-2-1 vote. That third substitute is presently making its way through the house and is expected to elicit heated debate in the Senate due to provisions that allow water to be taxed for other projects such as the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Dam.

After getting his bill out of the committee, Rep Noel told Utah Political Capitol that, “We have some water districts paying $1500 per acre/ft of water but then another water district in Utah County is paying $50 per acre/ft, so I don’t know what’s going on, I’m just trying to figure it out. But I know that I don’t want to hurt anybody’s water [rights] I really don’t, but I want to see that it’s protected and I just think that we can do a better job with [water rights],” he went on to say that, “I don’t think [the state] is doing that good a job with it and I think that people who are dependent upon water that’s outside of their jurisdiction have a very precarious situation upon them, that’s why we’re going to run this constitutional amendment.”

Noel’s idea is that if you have land without water rights, you should be able to count on the state of Utah to manage that precious and scarce resource on your behalf, to benefit your own property in lieu of having no water at all.

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