WEU: Water Rights in the Cottonwood Canyons

  • August 21, 2016
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by John Worlock
Member of the Board of Directors of Save Our Canyons 

            For many years, we have watched and wondered at the frequent attacks on Salt Lake City’s statutory control of the Cottonwood Creek Watersheds - the watersheds that provide reliable culinary water to half a million inhabitants in the Salt Lake Valley.  We have admired the City’s leaders as they have repeatedly and successfully reasserted their claim to the water.  Furthermore, we, as environmentalists, have enjoyed their collaboration and support in suppressing the wanton development of those canyons, which we treasure for their beauty, their wildness and their solitude.

            Salt Lake City’s control stems from what’s called Extraterritorial Jurisdiction, the right established in the Utah Constitution for control of property outside the municipal boundaries. Section 10-8-15 of the Utah Code grants specific authority over water sources for culinary and irrigation water.  Over a century ago, the Utah Supreme Court upheld the City’s authority to prevent a property owner from allowing his horses to graze near a stream that supplied the city’s water.  Over the years, many property owners and developers have been prevented from building and developing in ways that would imperil the water supply.  Others have complained bitterly when they found that their property came with no water rights and thus could not be developed. So far, almost all seem to have been shucked off harmlessly.

            We don’t know whether to become alarmed, but suddenly we’ve learned that an agency of the State Government wants to study, and perhaps reverse, Salt Lake City’s unique power.  It’s the Utah Quality Growth Commission.  While it has no statutory powers of its own, we suspect it is capable of making a lot of trouble.  It’s name, Quality Growth, suggests a goal that is unimpeachable.  And if they can establish that Wasatch Watershed Protection is somehow limiting the state’s growth, well, that’s a worry.

            The Growth Commission’s spokesman, one John Bennett, has suggested that some municipalities in the valley, such as Millcreek and Sandy, would like to annex and expand into parts of the canyons.  And they might have some political muscle.

            OK.  If that doesn’t frighten you, what will?

            Water is essential, and so are beauty, wildness and solitude.  Let’s fight for them!