MORGAN — The Weber River between Henefer and Morgan is a growing magnet for kayakers, tubers and anglers, but as pressures increase, interested parties are wondering who will be calling the shots.
The 7-mile stretch of river is split between Morgan and Summit counties. Various state agencies have limited authority over it. Landowners and river rafting companies hold vital stakes.
However, it appears that the thousands of river floaters who swarm the river in the 100-day summer season may be the ones in charge.
Morgan County Commissioner Mike Newton, a key figure in efforts to bring authority and guidance to the situation, grew up in the county and remembers when rafting the river “was not even a thing.”
About 20 years ago, a couple of rafting companies started up, and private tubers began floating the stretch, which locals call the “Hen-Tag” (Henefer to Taggart).
“In the last 10 to 15 years, it has exploded,” Newton said. “On heavy weekends, there are thousands of people. It’s crazy up there.”
The crowds have resulted in an array of problems, including trash, pollution, drunkenness, jammed access roads, overwhelmed parking areas, and paramedic and police calls.
“COVID has shown us that there’s a huge increase in recreation,” Newton said. “You certainly can’t blame them.”
As for the Hen-Tag, he said, “everybody knows about it now. That secret has not been kept.”
Dawna Zukirmi said there should be plenty of optimism toward solving the problems, especially if people work to identify areas of overlapping interests.
Zukirmi’s great-great grandfather helped found Morgan. She owns an outdoor recreation company and is a member of the Weber River Partnership, an effort to bring about change.
“I see some mistakes that were made with the river in the past,” she said. “I feel we can correct some of those mistakes to offer some stewardship for this resource in Morgan and keep it nice.”
On crowded summer weekends, sometimes it’s far from nice.
In a blog post on her Weber River Adventures website, Zukirmi recounted a couple of unpleasant incidents.
“An inebriated man urinated on my vehicle tire while the engine was running and I was at the driver’s seat waiting to move forward in the lane of traffic,” she wrote. “He thought the car was parked and was surprised to see it start moving forward.”
Another day, some people were draining and rolling up their inflatables in the middle of the one-lane road.
“When I politely asked them to move to the side of the road so I could drive through, they flipped me the bird and dropped the F-U bomb,” she said.
“On weekends, on hot summer days, it’s gridlock to the point that law enforcement could not let cars come in,” she said in an interview. “I have a real desire to preserve and protect the area and maintain the recreational aspect of it.”
Newton, Zukirmi and others repeatedly touched upon the scattered stewardship picture.
“It’s a complex situation,” Newton said. “For the county, I would say a couple of the major ones are law enforcement and dealing with everything from doing river rescue, trash and other problems.”
The upper half-mile of the Hen-Tag is in Summit County. That’s where the river rafting companies run their businesses and where the legions of private tube floaters get in.
The lower 6 or so miles run through Morgan County. The major debarkation point is at Taggart, a few miles east of Morgan City.
“So we typically deal with most of the enforcement, the break-ins of vehicles, the drunk and disorderly,” Newton said.
Sales tax revenue generated by float sales on the Henefer end goes to Summit County.
“We don’t see that financial benefit, which makes it a drain on us,” he said. “Our property taxpayers are picking up the bill.”
He said Morgan and Summit officials have talked about possible solutions with the state wildlife resources and parks and recreation departments, Trout Unlimited and private landowners.
Two years ago, prominent signage was installed to inform river users of safety concerns, legal requirements and the like.
Morgan placed portable toilets in the heavily used areas — Zukirmi had paid for them herself in the past — and some large trash bins.
Newton said the counties have discussed the possibility of imposing a small user fee to fund improvements and maintenance at the in-and-out areas and on the access roads.
“A lot of rivers have done that,” he said.
One eventual goal might be a park development on the Morgan County side, he said.
Floater safety also is a big worry. A tuber drowned last year on the upper part of the Hen-Tag.
Newton lives in Croydon and drives to and from Morgan six times a week.
“I have seen people walking up the freeway with a flattened tube over their shoulder,” he said. “We do see a lot of pool toys, and those things are not suitable for the river.”
Depending on the time of year, the Hen-Tag stretch has some sections of Class II and III rapids — of novice and intermediate difficulty.
In 2020, a North Ogden teenager was credited with saving his mother from drowning after she fell off her tube near Taggart.
Newton said Morgan asked Parks and Recreation officials if the state would consider making the Hen-Tag area a state park, but they didn’t see enough of an available revenue stream to make a park self-sufficient.
Park rangers do some patrolling of the river, enforcing life jacket wearing and use of proper flotation gear.
Meanwhile, private property owners have to deal with trespassers, vandals and garbage.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” Zukirmi said. “At the same time, if we work together, money may be available for flood control and irrigation improvements.” Habitat protection and economic development are other possibilities.
“That’s where interests overlap,” she said. “It requires enthusiastic community support, and that includes private property owners. And with rivers in Utah, that is a tricky thing. It’s definitely a touchy subject with a lot of people.”
Dylan Taggart, whose family owned a convenience store and gas station at Taggart before Interstate 84 changed the canyon decades ago, is a part-time Morgan County resident who owns one lot in the canyon and still follows river issues.
He said he is interested in “the public getting its voice heard.” He would like to see rafting companies “pay their fair share” and wishes Morgan County would be more aggressive in law enforcement along the river.
“Morgan County is trying to do the right thing, but they’re almost too nice about it,” Taggart said. He applauded the safety signage and the additions of portable toilets and trash bins.
Perhaps some outside eyes could have an impact.
Two third-year Brigham Young University law students are conducting an alternative dispute resolution project on the Hen-Tag.
“Everyone we talk to has the same goals in mind — controlling pollution, safety, access to the river, some of the non-family-friendly behavior prevalent on that portion,” said one of the students, Trevor Furner.
He said he and his classmate William Walker have a goal of not to recommend solutions, but rather to come up with a system all parties can use to work through any disagreements.
“The main issue is that there is not one entity in place that can really take over as the leader,” Furner said. “Everyone has been really cooperative. It’s a really good sign to see that everyone we talk to has the same interests going forward.”