Richard Watkins

Richard Watkins

Local advocates seem convinced that, without adopting the state legislated water conservancy district (WCD), with built-in taxing muscle, our valley would lose in the battle for existing and additional water allocations (“rights”) from the Bear River flow. This has the makings of a default option, suggesting that since the 1970s our valley has been unable to put in place a countywide planning strategy that integrates numerous growth-related components, including, of course, water.

A subsequent HJ commentary could be that of reviewing the history of missed opportunities in Cache Valley to establish a planning foundation that addresses the benefits, liabilities, impacts and demands associated with projected population growth; all revolving around water, transportation, air quality, open-space preservation, community services, public safety, county-municipal relations, and so forth. A separate, somewhat insulated bureau for water management—the WCD “default” option—is another step in the direction of fragmented versus coordinated, comprehensive planning, bypassing a broader approach aimed at mitigating the negative impacts associated with surging growth.

This commentary offers several questions in hopes of leading to some kind of open forum whereby public opinion is influenced by facts sifted from assumptions.

1. Without state WCD status, how is Cache County disadvantaged or underrepresented when deliberating with statewide water agencies and with Utah counties embracing the state water district model?

As downstate water delegates deliberate future distribution of “unallocated” water from the Bear River drainage system, does Cache County, as routinely claimed by local leadership, lack equal say due to its non-WCD representation?

For example, does neighboring Box Elder County’s state-based Bear River Water Conservancy District, adopted in 1988, command greater clout at state and regional water troughs, compared to Cache County’s present organizational makeup as a non-adopted water entity? If so, what constitutes the disparity?

2. Since public rejection of previous WCD attempts in Cache Valley over the past three decades, what has our county lost water-wise as for statewide representation and credibility by not having had in place the state-legislated conservancy model?

Among the claims preceding defeat of past public WCD referenda (county efforts beginning about three decades ago), proponents have persistently voiced a sense of urgency, a critical need, to adopt the WCD model for protection of Cache Valley’s future water interests. (“If we don’t use it we lose it.” A county commissioner quoted in HJ,

September 15, 1977.)

3. As for correlating future growth with water management and other vital planning components, what’s happened to the “Envision Cache County” planning incentive that received a major public kick-off in 2008-09 (the anticipated partnership with Envision Utah)?

Workshops were held throughout the valley for public input and response to various planning alternatives, including methods to preserve farmland open spaces, especially along major highway corridors. Cache Valley’s steady prime farmland conversion to housing and commercial development raises questions about future distribution and tiered uses of water. The Envision Utah partnership with Cache Valley promoted the overlaying of multiple planning components, which seemed to offer promise of a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to water development juxtaposed with other equally vital growth measures and challenges.

Other questions inviting contrasting views:

4. Is securing an at-will taxing empowerment the prime motivation for Cache adoption of a state-enabling WCD?

Tax monies, aside from user fees, come from a multitude of government pipelines to plan for and sustain growth. As for water contingency to meet future growth, would a WCD taxing instrumentality offer Cache Valley taxpayers the most prudent and protected use of local tax dollars? Have other water development/management models been reviewed by the county’s “Bridgerland Water Group”?

5. What conservation measures —t he headwaters of wise water stewardship — could be applied in our valley without the necessity of a tax-endowed water bureau?

6. Considering the traditionally disproportionate balance of party politics in Cache Valley, would there be a greater chance of a WCD bureau being politicized? And can the public at large be expected to assume an informed interest toward deciding the qualifications for “elected” members of a WCD board of directors?

As an equation to underscore the complexities inherent in growth, water delivery, and the critical need for integrated planning:

7. What would be our valley’s “fair” share of water from the Bear River basin equal to our “fair” share of Utah’s projected growth, to assure our “fair” share of anticipated tax revenue to meet a “fair” share of responsibility for directing and sustaining growth in a balanced and responsible fashion?

Let’s offer the public an in-depth, forthright clarification of water-related claims, expectations, and justification, as local advocates venture another WCD referendum.

Richard Watkins chaired the Cache County Farmlands/Open Space Preservation committee in the 1970s. Retired from Utah State University, he and his wife Paula reside in Mendon.

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