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Friday, January 20, 2006

Variations on "truthiness":

"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please."

-- Mark Twain, author, newspaperman and humorist (1835-1910)

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72 years later, Carbon and Sanpete still fighting over dam on Gooseberry Creek

By Jon Cox

December 19, 2005 | FAIRVIEW -- In 1933, the Bureau of Reclamation outlined its plans to construct a dam and reservoir on Gooseberry Creek to provide Sanpete County farmers adequate water. Now, 70 years and countless broken promises later, the dam remains unbuilt.

Neighboring Carbon County received their dam as promised and its estimated 43,000 acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is roughly the amount of water used annually by a family of four) stored in nearby Scofield Reservoir. Now though, Carbon County residents have protested the building of Sanpete's dam at every turn.

"This case flows from yet another skirmish in the never-ending war over water in the American West," reads a recent U.S. 10th District Court decision between the two disputing parties, Sanpete and Carbon counties.

"Carbon County is very strongly opposed to this project. They believe that it will take away from their water," Greg Soter, a public relations representative for Sanpete County, said.

The Narrows Project would dam nearby Gooseberry Creek, which originates in Sanpete County before flowing toward Carbon County and into Fish Creek and eventually Scofield Reservoir. Carbon residents rely heavily upon Scofield Reservoir each year for their water.

"Scofield is our only source of water in the whole area," Michael Milovich, Carbon County Commisioner said. "If they continue to push the dam, we will continue to oppose it."

Currently though, more water flows into Scofield than the reservoir can hold, with an estimated 9,000 acre-feet of water per year spilling over into the Colorado River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

The proposed Narrows Project would include a 17,000 acre-feet reservoir, 5,400 of which would be available to Sanpete County farmers each year. As part of the agreement, Scofield Reservoir would be enlarged to make up for the reduction in water flowing to it from Gooseberry Creek. The reservoir has been enlarged before, also in response to the projected dam on Gooseberry Creek. Bureau of Reclamation officials revised the original 1933 plan, now known as the Narrows Project in response to objections by Carbon County residents. To mediate the dispute, they agreed to enlarge the existing Scofield Reservoir providing more water for Carbon County.

They planned to first build the Narrows Project and then pursue the Scofield addition. But in 1943, the plan hit a snag. Government officials viewed the Scofield Dam as unstable. If it burst, it could potentially flood a nearby railroad line used to ship goods for World War II. With such a concern, the parties agreed that the Scofield Dam should be repaired and enlarged first, followed by the Narrows Project.

"Everybody, including Sanpete, said we can't interrupt the war effort," Soter said. But with the Scofield renovation finished, the Narrows Project would never be built.

"Carbon County got their water," Soter said. "But Sanpete never got what they deserved." Protesting Carbon County residents continued to stall the building of the dam.

As part of the 1943 agreement, both parties had acknowledged the water from Gooseberry Creek belonged to Sanpete County. Yet, decades later, the water continues to flow into Fish Creek and eventually into Scofield Reservoir, controlled by Carbon County.

Throughout the years, various governmental entities have recommended the construction of the Narrows Dam. In 1956, Congress passed the Colorado River Storage Project Act naming the Narrows Project as one of the undertakings to be completed. In 1962, the U.S. Department of Agriculture presented a document titled the North Sanpete Watershed Plan. The plan included the Narrows Project. That same year, the U.S. Forest Service issued a permit for the construction of the project. Sanpete County even built a 3,100-foot transmountain tunnel to transport the water to the valley.

In 1964, Congress again recommended the completion of the project, including the dam and reservoir. In 1966, the Army Corps of Engineers released a report, with several federal agencies supporting the project.

Yet nothing was built.

In 1984, the two sides entered into a Compromise Agreement wherein Carbon County acknowledged Sanpete's right to build the dam on the condition that they would limit their water usage to 5,400 acre feet per year, an amount considerably less than the original plans.

Even with the compromise, Carbon County continued to fight the proposal. "That agreement was shoved down our throats," Milovich said.

In 1995, the Bureau of Reclamation approved the Narrows Project. In response, Carbon County filed a suit based on technical issues within the environmental impact study. To avoid a court battle, the BOR issued a new environmental impact statement three years later.

But as the project was about to be built, the U.S. Forest Service attempted to designate Fish Creek as a wild-and-scenic destination in 2003. As Gooseberry Creek is a tributary of Fish Creek, officials immediately froze the Narrows Project.

The project once again faced a stalemate until 117 people wrote letters to the Forest Service opposing the designation. Shortly thereafter, the Forest Service repealed the proposal. Sanpete County citizens hope to build their dam starting with a new grassroots campaign. A recent push by the Sanpete Water Conservancy District and County Commissioner Claudia Jarrett has rekindled support for the Narrows Project. The project titled, "Dam It!" invited residents to write letters to officials at both the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The two agencies work closely together on such a project. "It's kind of like the left hand and the right hand," Jarrett said. Both entities must sign off on the project before it can be built. "Their offices have been inundated with letters," Jarrett said.

All letters received by the Sanpete Messenger, a local newspaper, have been published online. The website includes a petition of local residents which says, "We DEMAND that the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers end a 70-year trail of breached contracts and broken promises and approve the Narrows Dam and Reservoir on Gooseberry Creek in Sanpete County." Various community residents have signed the petition.

Many residents have also written to Utah Congressmen in Washington D.C. and the state's governor encouraging the project.

According to Soter, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, openly supports the program while Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, opposes it. Cannon represents Sanpete County and Matheson represents Carbon County. Utah Senators Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch along with state officials appear sympathetic to the Narrows Project as well, Soter said, though they remain less vocal.

"They have got to be a little more cautious," Soter said. "It's like they have got to choose between one of their children."

Carbon residents contest the dam will cost the state more than it thinks.

"When you build a dam, you just don't know how much it will cost," Milovich said. The loan will be financed by the state and paid back by Sanpete residents. He estimates the dam will cost $30 million at the very least. Milovich believes the money it will cost is not worth the water they will receive. "There is no economic benefit to this dam."

Fish enthusiasts oppose the program as well. The dam could threaten several species of cutthroat trout, including one that Milovich said is endangered. He lso warns that the project could pollute Fish Creek and Scofield Reservoir, popular fishing destinations.

Carbon residents believe Sanpete farmers could easily have enough water if they would conserve better. "They could double or triple the amount of water this dam would create for them at half the cost," Milovich said.

With such concerns, both sides anxiously await the release of a new the works for 15 years. The report is expected to be published soon. But even then, the fighting is expected to continue. One recent court battle cost Carbon County more than $500,000, Milovich estimates.

"As long as they are hell-bent on pushing that dam, no matter what, we're going to fight it," Milovich said.


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