Herbert, seated third from left, and National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon, fourth from left, sign the years-in-the-making agreement. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

May 22 might have seemed like an ordinary – albeit windy – day to the average Arches National Park visitor.

But to Gov. Gary Herbert and other dignitaries who gathered that afternoon at the park’s La Sal Mountains viewpoint, it was a day for the record books.

The governor joined National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon to sign a landmark water rights agreement that protects water resources within Arches, while preserving the rights of others who hold water rights in the area.

Speaking against the backdrop of the park’s famed Courthouse Towers, Herbert said the agreement represents a combined effort on the part of numerous state and federal officials that will keep water-related disputes from heading to an actual courthouse.

“I know that this is a labor of love for many people to get this resolved,” he said.

Cannon used similar words to describe the agreement.

“It’s the culmination of many, many years of effort by a group of people with great expertise and great commitment, determined to find a win-win solution to a problem,” she said.

Under the agreement, the park will retain the rights to 120 acre-feet of water per year for administrative purposes, such as campground and culinary water use. (One acre foot equals about 325,851 gallons of water.)

At the same time, the agreement ensures that natural streams and springs inside the park cannot be diverted for other purposes, and it creates watershed protection zones on state and federal lands in the Courthouse Wash, Sevenmile Canyon and Salt Wash basins beyond the park’s boundaries.

The zone protects surface water and groundwater that come from the upper Entrada aquifer. In one key win for the state, though, it does not extend to the lower-level Navajo aquifer, which means that groundwater below the Entrada formation can still be developed.

State officials also won provisions that protect upstream water rights owners, including ranchers and irrigators, who can continue their water use without any impediments. And in a victory for every non-lawyer out there, the agreement eliminates the possibility of future lawsuits regarding water rights in and around the park.

“I know the attorneys are going to feel bad about this, but the fact that we can have a lack of litigation and a resolution of conflict is an important part of this agreement,” Herbert said.

The park’s reserved water rights date back to the creation of Arches National Monument in 1929. However, the details of those rights were never clarified at the time, and the state continued to appropriate water after the establishment of the monument, which became a national park in 1971.

Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike Styler brought the audience up to date on the history behind the issue, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s justices ruled that Congress intended to create reserved water rights for places such as national parks.

“They just never said how much,” Styler said. “They left it up to the state and the federal government to negotiate it.”

In this case, that’s just what the two sides have been doing since 1999.

Past incarnations of the Grand County Council feared that earlier proposals would have hampered future development of groundwater resources around the park. State and federal officials eventually addressed those concerns in a draft version of the final agreement, which a previous county council ultimately endorsed.

About 18 months later, state officials were finally ready to climb on board, as well.

“Their presence and their purpose here today are a good example of the kind of assistance and support we’ve come to expect from the State of Utah and the governor,” Cannon said.

Former Arches National Park Superintendent Laura Joss, who currently serves as the deputy regional director of the park service’s intermountain region office in Denver, said she was happy that the two sides were able to resolve the issue.

“Those of us in the arid West know the value of water,” she said.

“As former superintendent of Arches, and as part of the team who worked on this agreement, it meant a great deal to me.”

Styler, meanwhile, praised Utah Division of Water Rights officials and others for heeding the governor’s call to be “reasonable” as they work on tough situations.

“Some states have chosen to just ignore the whole issue; others have decided, ‘We’ll litigate the issue,’ and there have been nasty lawsuits in some states between the state and Native Americans or the state and the national parks,” he said. “But in Utah, we have a governor that has said for many years, ‘Where there’s two reasonable people or two reasonable groups, we ought to be able to come to a reasonable resolution,’ and that’s what we’ve done here.”

Herbert said he believes that spirit of cooperation and collaboration is part and parcel of the state’s success, citing a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey which declared that Utah has been the best-performing state for the past two years.

“That’s high praise from people who have no ax to grind and really don’t care who’s number one and who’s number 50,” he said. “But it does reflect on the people of Utah, that we do have an understanding of how to work things out. Compromise is not a dirty word in our vernacular here in the state of Utah.”

The agreement is the 10th settlement of its kind that the two sides have reached to date, following similar efforts to define water rights at Zion National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument, among other places.

“We’ve got a great track record,” Styler said.

Next on the list is a proposed settlement to resolve water rights issues in and around Bryce Canyon National Park.

“We’re hoping he can do it before he’s re-elected,” Styler joked. “Either way, we’ll get the governor to sign it.”

Governor hails collaborative approach

It’s the culmination of many, many years of effort by a group of people with great expertise and great commitment, determined to find a win-win solution to a problem.