More than 100 water rights appear to be abandoned in the Moab area and if the owners don’t take action soon with the Utah Division of Water Rights, their claims could be adjudicated.
The state’s water rights division began the adjudication process — the formal assessment of water claims in the area — earlier this year and sent a formal notice to property owners. The adjudication process has begun with the northern half of the Moab area, from the Colorado River to Spanish Trail Road.
Property owners were told to submit their water rights claims by Aug. 2, but of the 582 water rights claimed in this area, 142 have not responded to the summons and submitted claims.
“They are probably abandoned,” said Marc Stilson, southeastern Utah Division of Water Rights (DWR) engineer, on Sept. 6.
The list of unclaimed water rights will be forwarded to the 7th District Court for a final determination.
“Abandoned water rights are disallowed, or stricken, from our records, and that completes the adjudication process,” Stilson said.
Stilson said the property owners who missed the Aug. 2 deadline may still submit a motion in court for a time extension to file a water rights claim. Stilson said the courts “generally accept” time extensions to give people time to file their water rights claim.
The Utah Division of Water Rights is now reviewing and finalizing verification for the 440 water rights that are claimed.
“We have been going out and checking them and putting together field reports,” Stilson said. This means checking the wells and making sure the water is being used. “We will then recommend to the court that that claim be affirmed as an active, valid water right. That will continue on through the fall, and then we hope to start on the next half of the valley next year.”
The next half of the valley has about 600 water rights claimed, Stilson said, in the area south of Spanish Trail Drive to the end of the valley in San Juan County.
Sheri Griffith, a local business person, has lived in the Moab area since 1981 and said Stilson came to check on her properties’ water rights claims after she responded to the summons.
The past owners of two properties that Griffith owns on South U.S. Highway 191 had filed for water claims to use well water. Griffith said the wells are no longer used since the properties are now connected to the city’s municipal water system.
“Both have been on city water for 20 years, so the claims really didn’t apply,” Griffith said. “The water rights were put in for culinary and irrigation. We don’t use them for culinary or irrigation.”
But at her home on Old City Park Road, Stilson worked with Griffith to update her water rights claims.
“They helped me to clarify that I didn’t need water rights for culinary anymore because I am hooked up to the city there, but I still need it for irrigation and livestock,” she said. Griffith has nine horses that she waters. “The state was helpful in updating my claims to say I have a valid water use, it just needs to be updated. They explained the process to me. Marc was very helpful.”
Water rights claims may need to be updated to reflect the current owners of the land, as well.
For example, Charlie Steen is still recorded as being the owner of water rights in Moab that he claimed in the 1960s, although the properties are now owned by other individual homeowners.
“Water rights transfer with the land,” Stilson said. “That’s fairly common that the people who originally filed the claim in the 50s or 60s have filed and the new owners have not updated the water rights to their name. They can contact a title agent and they would assist them in getting their ownership updated.”
HOW MUCH WATER IS THERE?
In addition to updating claims, the state is quantifying the amount of water users have on their claims.
“A lot of the early rights were filed without a lot of definition to them,” Stilson said.
The current practice is to measure water rights by volume in terms of acre-feet per year. In the past, water rights were recorded as flow measured in cubic-feet-per-second.
A single acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land (about the size of a football field) in a foot of water — equivalent to a volume of about 326,000 gallons.
“If you have an acre of ground next to your home, and you had a water right to water that and you were watering it from a well, let’s say, then the water right would be 6-acre feet per 1-acre of ground in the Moab area,” Stilson said. “But even though the water right might show 6-acre feet, the actual water use might be much less.”
To understand the amount of water usage in the area, measurements and studies are being conducted by the state, the City of Moab and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
“We know water users within the valley are being quite efficient with their water use,” Stilson said. He pointed to data on the state’s website that show less water is being used in the Moab area today than in the early 2000s.
The two largest municipal users of water in the valley are the City of Moab and Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency. The state’s current data show the city’s municipal water usage was 1,900-acre feet in 2017; In the county, water usage accounted for 960-acre feet.
“That puts it at about 3,000-acre feet for the two municipalities,” Stilson said. “We know there is some irrigation and some small domestic use … maybe we are using 4- to 5,000-acre feet. We don’t have an exact number, that’s why we are doing adjudication.”
Understanding how much water is being used in the region, and determining the volume of water available in the area, will help the state to develop a future water management plan.
A 1971 USGS study showed that there was 14,000-acre feet of water in the valley. That was the last time a water study was conducted.
A new USGS report has been in process for three years; in July, it was released to stakeholders as a courtesy for review, but has not been officially released to the public.
“Because the report draft has not yet been approved for publication by the USGS, we technically can’t release any of the details about the report to the public,” said Melissa Masbruch, a hydrologist with the USGS. “It also technically does not yet represent any official findings. I think maybe the most we can say at this point is that we have finished our study and hope to have the publication finalized by early next year.”
People familiar with the new USGS study have spoken anonymously with the Moab Sun News about it. The sources each gave a different interpretation of how much groundwater the study purports to be available in the Moab Valley and ranged between 10- to 14,000-acre feet.
The USGS study does not account for surface water from any of the creeks, lakes or Colorado River, Stilson said.
“Through the USGS study and the general water rights adjudication, we will come up with a groundwater management plan that will protect the groundwater water resource from over-development,” Stilson said.
He said that water restrictions could be a part of the management plan if the final conclusion is that there is 10,000-acre feet of water or less available in the area, but he emphasized that it’s too early to know.
Although the City of Moab is recorded as using 1,900-acre feet of water in 2017, city engineer Chuck Williams said the city has about 9,500-acre feet per year of “senior perfected water rights.”
“That means that these are old water rights that have been verified with the Utah Division of Water Rights,” Williams said. “We worked with the state to make sure that all of our water rights are organized and in order, and I believe they are at this point.”
The city is conducting an independent water study with a hydro-geologic consultant to verify the city’s water rights, Williams said.
The city’s study, the new USGS study and the state’s adjudication information will all be used to factor into the groundwater management plan that gets developed at a later date, Williams said.
“The thing I would encourage everybody to do, and what I have recommended to city council, is to be patient.”
Grand County residents Deanna King and George Weil operate the Red Moon Lodge on Old City Park Road. Their property includes a greenhouse, garden, agricultural field and a spring-fed pond. They said Stilson assisted them in applying for water rights to the pond, otherwise Weil said that someone else could have applied for those water rights.
“Marc, I think, is generally concerned about the water, Moab, the land and the people,” Weil said. “We need to be concerned about what San Juan County is going to do to the water rights, too, and what impact that’s going to have on the water here in Grand County. The bottom line is, water is life. We need to use it judiciously,” he said.
USGS completing study of amount of water in Moab valley
“The state was helpful in updating my claims to say I have a valid water use, it just needs updated. They explained the process to me. Marc was very helpful.”