For the second time in September, Cache County is expected to acquire land from federal agencies as part of efforts to gain local control of public lands.
The Wellsville-Mendon Conservation District will take ownership of the Wellsville and Hyrum-Mendon Canals from the federal Bureau of Reclamation after a 90-day congressional period that started with the Bureau’s public announcement of its intent to transfer the title on Wednesday.
Change in title, not operation
“It will benefit our water users by keeping operations at the local level and help us seek new Sources of funding to maintain and upgrade the canals,“ stated Wellsville-Mendon Conservation District president Quinn Murray in the press release. “This transfer will promote better opportunities for cost-effective operation and ensure long-term benefits to the water users.”
However, according to Kirt Lindley, who operates the canals, nothing will change other than the name on the title — for now.
“Basically, the way it got started was the canal company figured that to do some major work on it, that they would need to try and find funding to help pay for it,” Lindley said. “And the only way that they can qualify for funding is the company had to own the canal and not the federal government.”
While there are no planned repairs or infrastructure costs currently needed for canal maintenance, Lindley said the option to pipe the canals rather than leaving them open was a big factor in the transfer “because one government agency can’t pay another government agency.”
Both canals are currently fenced off and “no trespassing” signs are posted on the federally owned lands. Due to liability and insurance purposes, the canals will remain off limits to the public even after the transfer is finalized.
The two canals are the only ones in the Hyrum Project — founded in 1933 — that will be affected by the transfer, and Hyrum Dam and Reservoir will still be a federally controlled state park and waterway.
Prior to the transfer’s finalization, no federal grants will be available for upkeep of the 20 miles covered by the two canals which deliver irrigation water to approximately 8,800 acres of agriculture in the southwestern portion of Cache County.
Local control of public land
The proposed transfer is the most recent acquisition made possible by the 2019 John D. Dingell Conservation, Management and Recreation Act. On Sept. 9, Hyde Park’s acquisition of 80 acres of Bureau of Land Management property was finalized.
According to Mark Hurd, a former Hyde Park council member who helped facilitate the conveyance on the north end of the county, said having local control of local public lands is crucial for proper management.
Local agencies can “develop a better management for public lands that would fit how people who live near the land would utilize it,” Hurd said, “or at least have more of firsthand knowledge and understanding of what is involved in the particular geology and geography of that land. It’s harder to manage about the 30,000-foot-level than on the ground, if you will.”
For example, the majority of use for the Wellsville and Hyrum-Mendon canals is agricultural, where the Reclamation office that currently owns the canals and accompanying land is housed in Salt Lake City.
This belief was referenced in the press release from the Bureau of Reclamation, which quoted the U.S. Department of Interior’s assistant secretary for water and science, Tim Petty: “The irrigation district has paid for these facilities, and they’ve been operating and maintaining them for years; it’s time to hand over ownership and reduce federal control.”
Hurd, who also serves on the board of directors for the Hyde Park Canal Company, said local agencies are often users and stakeholders themselves and are better equipped to make localized decisions.
Though the Department of Interior classified the parcel of land recently acquired from BLM “useless” in 1985, Hyde Park has plans to not only house a culinary water tank within the 80 acres but to include future amenities for the public that would tie into the Bonneville trail system and potentially include a nature park.
The bipartisan Dingell Act that paved the way for both the canal and Hyde Park conveyances has roots in Utah as outgoing Congressman Rob Bishop was one of the co-sponsors for the bill.