Powder Mountain development prompts concern for limited water supply
EDEN — Nestled amid three ski resorts in Ogden’s upper valley, this mountainside town (population about 900) grapples with growth and how to manage one of its most critical resources — water.
Last September, billionaire and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings purchased a controlling interest in nearby Powder Mountain, North America’s largest resort in terms of skiable terrain.
Since his $100 million investment, Hastings sketched out plans to deliver long-awaited upgrades that would enhance and expand the resort’s public and private amenities.
And snowmaking — something new for Powder Mountain — could soon become part of that mix.
In late November, the Powder Mountain Water & Sewer Improvement District filed an exchange application with the state water engineer that drew several letters of protest from residents and small water companies in the area.
Pineview Reservoir sits at the center of the upper Ogden Valley, surrounded by Eden, Huntsville (population about 600), Liberty (population about 1,400) and Wolf Creek (population about 2,133). Longstanding unincorporated areas such as Middle Fork also dot the hillside.
But a basic truth in this scenario is that water cannot flow uphill.
Dee Staples, who has overseen Wolf Creek Irrigation Co. for the past 25 years, noted that the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District continues to sell water out of Pineview with the assurance that they can make downstream water users whole during drought years.
“They can,” Staples said. “But the fault in that reasoning is that we’re above Pineview, so they can’t make us whole. Unless someone brings (Powder Mountain) to the negotiating table, they just ignore us.”
More water for Powder Mountain?
Powder Mountain District’s new water application describes its goal as consolidation of Summit Mountain Holding Group’s water rights and theirs, which would “allow flexibility to pull water from its current and potential water sources.”
According to Powder Mountain’s recent exchange application, those potential water sources could include the drilling of five new mountaintop wells.
In light of multiple protests, the state water engineer set a hearing where all parties can discuss the exchange in detail.
That hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Feb. 22 at the North Ogden City Offices, 505 E. 2600 North.
Robert Behrendt, chairman of the Powder Mountain District, issued a written statement saying they’ve “made every effort to ensure no other water right holders are harmed by its newly filed exchange application.”
The statement acknowledged the 2016 mitigation agreement between Summit and Wolf Creek Irrigation Co., which required Summit to 1) purchase 15 Wolf Creek shares to use for mitigation and 2) build a 20-acre-foot reservoir to supplement Wolf Creek’s low-water flows.
But Powder Mountain’s statement said they had not been a party to that agreement, and that their water rights are separate from the water addressed in the 2016 agreement.
Powder Mountain’s statement also said they’ve attempted since 2016 to secure a similar mitigation agreement with Wolf Creek Irrigation Co. — but couldn’t reach consensus.
Powder Mountain’s new application outlines a mitigation plan that alters the 2016 agreement by shortening the window for supplementing Wolf Creek’s flows and also reducing the diversion value of its 15 Wolf Creek shares by about 38%.
The proposed mitigation plan also adjusts Powder Mountain’s consumption ratio to include snowmaking.
Summit purchased the Powder Mountain Ski Resort in 2013 with ambitious plans to establish an eclectic mountaintop community. Combining Powder Mountain and Summit’s water rights will give the resort over 600 acre feet to tap.
Enough H2O to go around?
Miranda Menzies, who chairs the Wolf Creek Water & Sewer Improvement District board, knows firsthand what can happen when parties compete for overlapping resources.
Between July 2021 and November 2022, the Wolf Creek district installed a moratorium on new water permits for available lots within its jurisdiction.
“At the time of the moratorium, we had 380 empty building lots that had been recorded at the county — but we didn’t have enough water for them,” Menzies said.
Several factors led to that freeze on permits, but Menzies said that some had been decades in the making. She’d seen a string of developers since the 1980s who made assertions that “really didn’t stack up in terms of long-term legal rights to use the water.”
Add drought and an unexpected bacteria outbreak to that mix and the moratorium became necessary while the Wolf Creek district searched for new backup water sources, including digging a new well.
The primary spring for Eden Water Works sits within Wolf Creek’s district, and Menzies believed “we had to protect them so they get their water.”
In February 2022, Wolf Creek district drilled a well that yielded plenty of good water — but it impacted the Eden spring even though it was about a half-mile higher on the mountain.
Use of that well caused the Eden spring to dry up, she said, which led to a nine-month negotiation that resulted in an agreement not to use the well for new development or new building lots but solely as a backup for both water entities.
“That contract has been recorded with the Division of Water Rights,” Menzies said, praising the results of that hard-fought consensus.
At 78, Staples of Wolf Creek Irrigation Co. still farms and raises cattle. His senior water rights date back to 1861.
From March to November each year, Wolf Creek’s irrigation water flows to shareholders, many who hope to harvest two rounds of crops before winter.
But for years now, water flow from Lefty’s Spring and Pizzel Springs 1,2 and 3 has dwindled to less than half their allotted minimum flow during the heat of the summer.
“Even though our low water right is 9.85 cubic feet per second, when we get into July we only get around 4 cubic feet per second,” Staples said. “So every year we send out restriction letters telling everybody they have to cut back on irrigation times.”
Staples vividly remembers what it took to establish the 2016 mitigation agreement with Summit:
“Five protestants — Wolf Creek Irrigation Co., Wolf Creek Water & Sewer Improvement District, Eden Water Works, Gay Browning (Bar B Ranch) and Middle Fork Irrigation Co. — spent around $450,000 to negotiate an agreement with Summit to mitigate the pumping of water up on the mountain.”
Staples said that Summit’s diversion points (Lefty’s Spring and the three Pizzel Springs) also impacted Geertsen Spring that helps feed Browning’s ranching operation.
The 2016 agreement allowed Summit to pump 200 acre feet of water out of its Hidden Lake and Bloomington wells, and also required that it relinquished its diversion point at Geertsen Spring.
Staples described the 2016 agreement as the “roadmap for how mitigation on the mountain should be handled.”
However, that consensus failed to materialize as they met with Powder Mountain District officials. They’d been in negotiations for three to four years, Staples said, with Powder Mountain trying to define terms where they could use their 15 shares of mitigation water to activate the Cobabe Well.
After those talks hit an impasse, Powder Mountain decided to take its plan to the state engineer last November.
“They don’t want to follow the specifics of that (2016) agreement; they want to use their own calculations and their own rights to do what they want,” Staples said. “Basically, … they’re tired of negotiating with us.”
In her protest letter to the state water engineer, Browning described her Bar B Ranch as a commercial cow/calf operation that also raises horses, grows grass and alfalfa, and provides wildlife habitat. Her family’s water rights date back to 1861 and 1886.
During dry years, Browning said Geertsen flows run so low that “water right holders struggle to irrigate even without interference.”
Browning noted that one of the proposed wells listed on Powder Mountain’s new application “is essentially the same diversion point” referenced in Summit’s prior application where mitigation mandated that it be eliminated.
“Powder Mountain Water and Sewer appears to want to pick and choose which parts of the 2016 Settlement Agreement they want to abide by,” Browning said in her protest letter.
Browning called Powder Mountain’s new mitigation plan unacceptable: “It is just an attempt to deceive the State Engineer and likely just try to outspend those that have been mitigated for in the 2016 Settlement Agreement.”