Arne Hultquist spoke to the Moab City Council on Tuesday, April 10, about an advisory board’s resolution that asks the Utah Division of Water Resources to limit new groundwater allocations in Spanish Valley. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Slow down, state water regulators.

The Moab City Council is sending that request to the Utah Division of Water Resources, asking officials to put the brakes on any new groundwater appropriations in Moab and Spanish Valley until – or even after – a groundwater management plan is complete.

Council members voted 3-1 on Tuesday, April 10, in favor of a resolution from the city’s water conservation and drought management advisory board that raises concerns about the future availability of groundwater in the valley. Rani Derasary, Mike Duncan and Karen Guzman-Newton voted in favor of Derasary’s motion to approve the resolution, while Tawny Knuteson-Boyd opposed it; Kalen Jones was absent from the meeting.

The resolution says that Spanish Valley’s main aquifer is already over-appropriated, and the document goes on to state that global climate change could further reduce the availability of local groundwater resources.

State officials have said that current groundwater withdrawals in the valley total close to 4,000 acre-feet annually, but on paper, more than 20,000 acre-feet have been allocated. (One acre-foot equals about 325, 851 gallons of water.)

In comparison, Moab and Spanish Valley have an estimated water budget of 11,000 to 13,000 acre-feet, according to revised estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The City of Moab, the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency (GWSSA) and the San Juan Spanish Valley Special Service District hold most of those allocated rights, although much of that water is not currently used.

Both Derasary and Guzman-Newton voiced their support for the advisory board’s work on the resolution.

“I might be in the minority, but I was satisfied by the comments that came back from the water board, so I would be comfortable supporting a resolution – now, or in the future,” Derasary said.

“The council hired a water advisory board for exactly these types of reasons,” Guzman-Newton added. “To respect the work that they’re doing is something that’s important to me, too.”

Council members previously tabled consideration of the resolution until city staff had the opportunity to review it, and Moab City Engineer Chuck Williams subsequently responded with several key concerns.

In a memo to the council, Williams noted that the city is using just 3,000 acre-feet of its 9,518 acre-feet in water rights allocations, leaving more than 6,500 acre-feet for future growth.

It’s therefore “misleading and inaccurate at best,” Williams wrote, for the resolution’s authors to state that current and projected water uses in the city and valley are expected to meet or exceed safe yield in the future. Williams also took issue with wording in the resolution which says that it’s “misleading and a disservice to valley residents” to perpetuate the impression that “abundant” groundwater resources are available for “unchecked” development. He called that language “misleading and inflammatory at best.”

Overall, Williams wrote, he believes the resolution includes too many assumptions that don’t seem to be supported by the data available from the documents he has seen, or the experts he has spoken with.

Despite Williams’ concerns about the advisory board’s choice of words, Moab City Manager David Everitt told council members that none of the language in the resolution has changed.

“It stands as it (did) before, with the context that you were given by staff,” Everitt said.

State to hold April 18 public hearing on water rights

The council’s vote on the resolution came as Utah Division of Water Rights (DWR) officials continue their work to adjudicate general water rights in the Moab and Spanish Valley area.

A public meeting to provide information on the adjudication process will be held on Wednesday, April 18, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Grand Center, 182 N. 500 West.

DWR officials have said the process will help the agency better understand what water rights are in use, while giving them a clearer picture of the annual use in Moab and Spanish Valley.

“As Moab continues to develop, it is critically important for us to know how much water is actually in use,” DWR Southeastern Regional Engineer Marc Stilson said earlier this year.

Moab City Water Conservation and Drought Management Advisory Board chair Arne Hultquist told the council this week that he’s “absolutely positive” the DWR has the authority to close the valley’s main aquifer. It can also regulate not only withdrawals – if there’s a groundwater management plan in place, he said – but allocations on a regular basis.

At this point, Hultquist said, the state is mostly closed to surface water allocations, and the Colorado River is the only area where such allocations are “really” available.

Hultquist said he agrees with the city engineer’s opinion that the valley is not in the midst of a groundwater management crisis.

“(Williams) is absolutely correct that we are not in a serious situation at this point in time,” Hultquist said. “The city has plenty of water; we probably have enough infrastructure to support us for several years.”

The issue, Hultquist said, will appear in the next few decades.

“That’s where the groundwater management plan is taking us,” he said. “I feel it is in Moab’s best interest to have the aquifer closed prior to going into the negotiations.”

Duncan, who serves alongside Hultquist on the advisory board, said the resolution was drafted in response to concerns that the region’s groundwater resources are heavily over-appropriated as is.

“I say it’s consciousness-raising,” Duncan said. “As I like to put it, John Wesley Powell was the first guy to realize that the scarcity of water in the West is going to limit development some day, and they will be fighting words, and certainly be fought in courtrooms … and this resolution is a way of raising a hand, if you will, and saying, ‘Hey, this is coming.’”

Although he ultimately voted in favor of the resolution, Duncan initially said he would be comfortable tabling it for a few more months until a city-hired hydrologist has issued his own report on local groundwater resources. That report, he said, may or may not corroborate the findings from a 2017 USGS study.

“This motion … (is) largely a feel-good, if you will, resolution, in the sense (that) it does not bind the state to do anything,” Duncan said. “The state will make (its) own findings as to the merit of the issues that are raised in the recommendation.”

Knuteson-Boyd also spoke up in support of postponing consideration of the resolution.

“That’s where I would lean,” she said. “When I read things like, ‘There are too many assumptions that don’t seem to be supported,’ and when (Duncan) says it’s a feel-good thing, I don’t want to write a resolution or accept a resolution just to feel good. I want it to have some real merit.”

Having said that, Knuteson-Boyd said she thinks that the advisory board’s members put their hearts and minds “in the right place.”

“We obviously want to protect what we have, and not over-allocate,” she said. “That’s a very real thing – we live in a desert. But I would like to get more data before we’re committed to a resolution.”

Council votes 3-1 in favor of resolution, despite concerns from city engineer

This motion … (is) largely a feel-good, if you will, resolution, in the sense (that) it does not bind the state to do anything.