The assessment presented to Moab City Council on Tuesday, May 14, included several images, such as this one showing the size of the study area and the flow directions in the groundwater system. The study area encompasses runoff from the La Sal Mountains. The small arrows are local groundwater flow directions. The larger blue arrows show groundwater flow direction along major hydrostructures and the major groundwater flow direction in the Spanish Valley area. [Photo courtesy of Kolm and van der Heijde]

Can the City of Moab take water out of the Colorado River if its springs and wells become depleted? Is climate change data being factored into water use planning in Moab and in the State of Utah?

These were two questions raised on Tuesday, May 14, at the Moab City Council workshop discussing an assessment and recent report detailing surface and groundwater resources in and around Moab.

Moab City Engineer Chuck Williams delivered the hour-long workshop presentation along with the authors of the report, Kenneth Kolm and Paul K.M. van der Heijde. Kolm works at Hydrologic Systems Analysis LLC in Golden, Colorado, while van der Heijde works at Heath Hydrology Inc. based in Boulder, Colorado.

The report contains a three-phase plan for Moab’s springs and wells. The first phase, to use mapping and data to perform a Hydrologic and Environmental System Analysis (HESA) of Moab’s springs and wells to develop a comprehensive and updated understanding of the groundwater system, has been completed. The second phase, collecting hyrodological and hydrogeological data currently available to use in a water budget, has also been completed.

The third phase, which has not yet been completed, aims to update the Water Protections Plans for the city’s springs and wells.

The city’s plans are not the same as the Groundwater Management Plan currently under development, and spearheaded by, the Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Water Rights for Moab and Spanish Valley. The report presented at the workshop explained surface water and groundwater flows and how the geologic rock formations influence the flow, storage, distribution of water, and did not talk about water rights.

However, the city’s data from the assessment and its plans will be considered in the development of the Groundwater Management Plan, said Marc Stilson, the southeastern regional engineer for the Division of Water Rights, along with data from his agency’s work on water rights adjudication in the valley and a recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study.

Moab City Council member Rani Derasary asked during the workshop if climate change data is reflected in the assessment and planning.

“In terms of climate change, is there a standard, either percentage or formula, that, if you wanted a community to plan out 40 years, does the state allow you to calculate that in?” Derasary asked. “Is that all based on the engineer calculating anyway, then it would be based on consultation from a hydrologist  on how you should help calculate that? Just cause it seems like that’s something we’re facing. I don’t know how it’s going to affect these numbers.”

Van der Heijde responded by saying that climate change data has not been included and explained that a change would mean either more snow and precipitation or less, which would create a “major change” in the use of water by plants and the in-flow of water from Mill Creek from the La Sal Mountains.

“I would say in this right now, we don’t have it,” he said. we didn’t locate it right now, because there was not this question,” he said. “If you are concerned for a 40-year plan, I think that there are already studies that give some indication for this area … not certain what those predictions are, we (have not) looked into that… I’m not certain where to find it, but it is possible.”

Climate data, including data pertaining to land and water resources, is mandated by law to be reported to Congress and the U.S. President through the enactment of the Global Change Research Act of 1990.

To fulfill the mandate, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took the lead on developing the Fourth National Climate Assessment released in November (available at or at

Data from that assessment generated a report, “National Climate Assessment map shows uneven impact of future global warming on U.S. energy spending,” showing that Grand County, and to a somewhat lesser extent San Juan County, will be disproportionately affected by climate change in the coming years. Grand County is one of a handful of Utah counties that will see the greatest change with an estimated 10 to 15 percent increase in energy expenditures. The report notes that all sectors of energy will be impacted, and says there is “groundwater depletion exacerbating drought risk in many part of the U.S., particularly in the southwest.”

“Water management strategies that account for changing climate conditions can help reduce present and future risks to water security, but implementation of such practices remains limited,” the report states.

The city has hired an attorney who specializes in water, Jeff Gittins, who was also present at the workshop.

“When it comes to those 40-year plans, usually those are prepared by engineers who look at the city’s expected growth, growth patterns and also look at concurrent flow in terms of volume,” he said.

Data that is still being assessed — including the final USGS study, which has not been released but is expected to be formally shared later this year. The USGS study includes data from the few gages it has in the area to monitor surface water. Stilson said the nearest river gage on the Colorado River to Moab is located in Cisco, and another is located in the valley at Mill Creek near Sheley Tunnel.

City council discussed if there is a need to install and operate more water gages or monitoring systems in the area.

“One of my questions for Chuck (Williams) and Joel (Linares) and the council was, is that built into our budget, is that something we need to add? Is that something we’re interested in doing?” Derasary asked.

“Monitoring stations, no we do not have that built into our budget right now,” Williams said.

“It’s something we need to review,” said Moab City Manager Joel Linares.

Moab City Mayor Emily Niehaus shared during the workshop that she has heard from people in the community that the City of Moab could, at some distant time in the future, tap into the Colorado River as a water resource.

The City of Moab does not have water rights to draw from the Colorado River, Stilson said in a previous interview with the Moab Sun News. Officials at the workshop also confirmed that point.

Groundwater is being estimated for the area in the assessments and reports, Stilson said, but not “measured specifically,” and he said estimating groundwater is performed by “electrical resistivity,” an electrical current measured by probes.

According to a draft final report from the USGS, the Moab valley has between 7,200- to 11,800-acre-feet in groundwater. Stilson said those figures may be different once adjusted in the final report to be shared later this year.

“Once cities hit the limit on groundwater, they use surface level,” Stilson said.

That’s if there is surface water available — climate data shows a 2% decrease in the relative amount of rain that falls as heavy rain in Utah occurring between 1901 and 2016.

“Climate change could reduce the availability of a steady supply of water in some areas,” a U.S. Global Change Research Program report states.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s workshop, city officials said they have additional work to do in analyzing water resources in the valley and how to protect it from overuse.

City workshop about surface water, groundwater and development raises questions

“It’s something we need to review.”