May 10, 2021

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Utah’s Cove Reservoir was proposed under false pretenses to win federal subsidy, critics allege

6 min read

Supporters say the water is needed for farming, but could eventually be used for other purposes.

(Courtesy photo by Utah Rivers Council) This land slated for a future subdivision in St. George is among the supposed alfalfa fields to be irrigated by water from the proposed Cove Reservoir far upstream on the Virgin River in Kane County. Project critics contend the dam proponents have deliberately mischaracterized the reservoir’s purpose to win huge federal subsidies intended to support agriculture.

The stated purpose of a $30 million reservoir proposed by the Kane County Water Conservancy District is to provide water for alfalfa growers, mostly in neighboring Washington County downstream on the Virgin River. Because it would support Utah agriculture, the Cove Reservoir would enjoy a generous federal subsidy with U.S. taxpayers shouldering 75% of the costs.

But land that project proponents identified for receiving the water appears to be slated for development on St. George’s periphery or has already been subdivided, raising serious questions about the project’s true purpose and the legality of its financing through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS.

These and other discrepancies were outlined in formal comments submitted by a dozen environmental organizations and other critics in response to a draft environmental assessment (EA) released in November by the NRCS. The groups contend the Kane and Washington county water districts are exploiting a federal program intended to support agriculture in a way that could enrich water rights holders and subsidize water development that would enable even more urban sprawl in Utah’s fast growing southwest corner.

The groups allege the project’s review is being rushed to get it approved before the Trump administration relinquishes authority on Jan. 20. As a result, the document is marred by glaring omissions and unasked questions, according to Zach Frankel, the Utah Rivers Council’s executive director.

“If someone asked to borrow money from a private lender with this level of incompetence and misinformation in filling out the loan application, a banker might wonder if he or she was being intentionally scammed by a huckster,” Frankel said.

Critics argue dam proponents are exaggerating the project’s benefits to agriculture in an effort to secure funding under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act, a 1954 law aimed at supporting rural communities. The central figure promoting the project is Mike Noel, the retired southern Utah lawmaker who runs the Kane County water district.

At a Dec. 9 online meeting, Noel acknowledged that the reservoir’s water could eventually be used for municipal purposes in the future although that would be up to the irrigation companies that hold the rights to the water filling the reservoir.

(Courtesy photo by Natural Resources Conservation Service) This basin in Utah’s Long Valley near Orderville would be inundated by a proposed dam impounding the Virgin River’s water. The project is supposed to benefit alfalfa growers, but critics contend its real aim is store water to feed growth in St. George.

The 186-acre reservoir would be built just off the Virgin River’s main stem west of Orderville and filled via an existing diversion structure and 24-inch-diameter pipe. It would capture water during spring high flows, storing up to 6,000 acre-feet behind the dam and releasing it late in the summer when river flows are low. Some of the water rights are held by nearby irrigation companies, but about three-fourths of the rights are held by Washington County, according to Noel

“This reservoir would actually improve agriculture and potentially future municipal water,” Noel said at the meeting. “Just having that water available, it’s a big thing for the irrigators that own that water. It’ll be protected. If there’s uses needed in the future, there’s a higher and better use, that water would be used by people to build homes and to use water in another another way, just like they’ve done on the Wasatch Front.”

Yet the environmental assessment is completely silent on the likelihood that the water will not grow alfalfa. Instead it provides precise projections on the acreage to be watered and increased yields.

Such a mischaracterization of the project’s likely outcome amounts to a “Trojan horse” that would enable federal funding for a project that would serve little purpose other than enriching private interests and subsidizing sprawl at the expense of taxpayers and the environment, according to Richard Spotts, a retired environmental review coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management and longtime St. George resident.

“Private and county water rights holders want the federal government to largely pay for a local project that would primarily benefit those holders’ potential future profits from speculative water sales,” Spotts wrote in his comments to the NRSC. “The purported recreational and listed fish species benefits are merely window dressing to make this boondoggle appear more reasonable. This proposed project is another cynical example of Utah public officials who consistently slap Uncle Sam in the face with one hand while grabbing his wallet with the other hand.”

In addition to irrigating 6,000 acres of alfalfa, the environmental assessment claims that the reservoir will provide water recreation and a sports fishery, enable greater hydropower from existing generators, and improve habitat for federally protected fish species that inhabit the lower reaches of the Virgin River.

Such late season releases would help the Washington County water district meet its obligations to the irrigators that hold the rights to the Virgin River’s water, according to Zachary Renstrom, the district’s general manager.

“If there’s more water in the river system during those late summer months, then that’s going to make it so I don’t have to release water out of Quail [Creek] reservoir to meet those water rights needs,” Renstrom said. “The fish will have more water in the river itself. … it puts more water in the entire Virgin River basin water system at a time when it’s critically needed.”

But critics say the project’s purported habitat benefits would be negated if the water is used for a municipal purpose; instead of being released into the river at times of low flow, releases would be spread over the course of the year.

And if Cove Reservoir’s water is primarily used for municipal or industrial uses, it should not be eligible for federal subsidies, say critics, who argue that the proposal is distorting the purpose of the watershed protection law.

The draft environmental assessment states the reservoir would deliver water to 6,000 acres of alfalfa, increasing yields by 25%. Most of that allegedly irrigated cropland — 4,858 acres — isn’t in rural Kane County, but rather miles downstream in fast urbanizing Washington County. While much of the Washington County land does not appear to be irrigated cropland at all, the Kane County land is indisputably agricultural fields along the Virgin River. Yet much of it is upstream of the reservoir, implying that the water would have to be pumped to these fields. The draft does not disclose how the water would get to these fields, raising additional doubts about the review’s thoroughness and objectivity, Frankel said.

An appendix features a map showing the footprints of land to be irrigated with the water stored behind the dam. The Washington County patch is an area called Washington Fields, straddling the boundary between St. George and Washington City. Activists visited the parcels included inside this footprint and saw a lot of pavement, buildings, streets and signs advertising future subdivisions.

The environmental groups’ analysis found that land identified for irrigation amounts to only 2,200 acres, far less than the 4,858 claimed, and much of that will never see alfalfa, such as the Washington Fields Middle School. Also included is the proposed Heritage Cove subdivision and the 16 acres where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plans to build a new Washington County Temple and parking lot.

Renstrom acknowledged the maps supporting the environmental assessment should be updated. He also agreed lands slated to receive the reservoir’s water could be subdivided someday, but he said that possibility does not dilute the value of the project.

“The water that will be used for those irrigators when that thing [the dam] is built. The question is, should those irrigators never be able to do anything with their land or does this lock them in forever and ever? My answer to that is no, that’s not what the [environmental assessment] is contemplating. If those farmers want to keep their land in agriculture, this is going to allow them to keep it in agriculture, to allow them to keep it open space for as long as they want,” Renstrom said. “I don’t look at it as a bait and switch because it’s not putting a moratorium on farmers to choose what they do with their land. This is the way a lot of federal projects have been done.”

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