Farmers urged to fight hard for water rights

Jul 20 2012 - 7:27pm

OGDEN -- It's time to stand up and be heard if you want to keep your water rights.

That was one message farmers and ranchers received Friday at the Utah Farm Bureau Federation annual convention at the Eccles Conference Center.

Speaking was Dennis Strong, director of Utah's Division of Water Resources.

"You can't count on being taken care of," Strong said. "The legislators ... they don't understand it like you do."

He warned those in attendance that it would be dangerous to assume the members of the Utah Legislature always have their best interest in mind.

Strong said those in the farming and ranching profession are represented by only one elderly man in the Legislature.

Strong also warned that new laws and regulations have taken away some of the power of the state engineer.

Strong suggested that the state engineer ought to be considered an advocate for farmers and ranchers. "You might want to consider that he might be a good gatekeeper."

Strong talked broadly about a difference in the definition of water conservation. He said when most people think of water conservation, they think of using less water. However, when farmers and ranchers think about conserving water, he said they think of using the water they have in a better way so they can grow more with that same amount of water.

"You all have been doing water conservation since 1847 when they dug the first ditch," he said.

"When I worked with you and we built a sprinkler system, we conserved water," Strong said. "What did you do with what you saved? You grew more alfalfa."

Strong said it is important that farmers and ranchers understand the difference between the two definitions, and that they stand up for themselves to keep the water they've historically received from being taken away through regulation.

"These new-minded money changers want your land and your water," he said.

Regarding water infrastructure, he said $20 billion needs to be invested in the next 20 years in order to meet population growth and other necessities.

Two specific projects which he said the state has taken an interest in are the Bear River project, which would bring water south from that area, and the Lake Powell pipeline project, which would bring water to St. George.

He said the price tag for those projects is nearly $1 billion each.

And the other $18 billion in needs, he said, represents long lists of other projects. Strong said these needs are mostly for municipal demands, with four or five times the number of municipal projects on the lists as there are agricultural projects.

He outlined a program that uses an additional $14 million each year of loan money, sometimes at a zero interest rate, for water projects.

He said agricultural communities may use these funds to improve waterways to meet their needs.

But he admitted that such funding is not enough to go around.

"It's in your best interest to support funding for water projects," he said.

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