How River Water Changed Everything in My Hometown

I moved to Zion when I was nine years old. Springdale was a different place then – very small and very poor. Springdale’s poverty-consciousness was prevailing; everything was scarce and water was always a part of that awareness. Irrigation water ran in the ditches and there was a water master who monitored water turns every hour. If you didn’t get your gate closed on time, Barbara Felton closed it and got in your face about stealing water.

For culinary water, Springdale had only well rights and spring rights. The spring rights were very old and the water was very good, but the spring was inside Zion National Park and the water was piped into Springdale in a tiny pipe. The spring didn’t meet the needs of the town by itself, so the Town drilled several wells trying to find another good source. The wells were disappointing. Always the water was full of salt and minerals and had to be mixed with the spring water to be drinkable. Pumping most of the night finally filled the water tank, which sometimes lasted until dusk the next day, when a blaring alarm notified the man on call it was time to start the pumps.

For many years, survival in Springdale was sketchy. Businesses hung on by their fingernails because the entire season consisted of June, July and August. Kids started working as soon as they could get a work permit (I was 13.) When they grew up, they moved away. I did.

There were people who defied and beat the odds – usually, people who moved into Springdale from somewhere else. People who had bigger ideas and dreams than could be carried in a tiny pipe, so bigger pipes were installed to a new tank that didn’t have a siren. People built or renovated motels and restaurants, swimming pools and gift shops and were fairly successful until the water ran out. Moratoriums were imposed. In the 80s there wasn’t enough water to allow anyone to build anything. People were frustrated and angry because they had property they couldn’t develop. Times were hard. Businesses closed. Most of Springdale looked and felt like a ghost town when I came back home to work for Springdale Town in 1986.

Then something happened that changed everything. The Irrigation Company’s water right decree was re-adjudicated by the state engineer. A decree is a kind of water right that is mathematically determined. The (number of acres cultivated) is multiplied (x) by the (number of acre-feet required to keep those acres watered for a year) to determine the (=) total number of second-feet decreed. Periodically, the state engineer checks up on water rights and decrees because all the water in Utah belongs to the State and they want proof it’s being used. When they re-adjudicate, they measure the currently cultivated ground in the decree area and redo the math.

In the 80s, only two-thirds of the acres under the original decree were being cultivated and the Irrigation Company lost a third of its water right. Just like that. Plus they learned that they had been diverting far more water from the river than their decree permitted. Evaporation from the open ditches and thirsty cottonwoods trees sucked away at least a third of the water in the irrigation ditch. The Irrigation Company suddenly faced having to divert only as much water as decreed, which was a third less than it used to be, then losing a third of it again before it got to the land. They needed a pipeline to keep their fields and homes watered. It was a disaster.

But wait. A strange thing happened. The Town and the Irrigation Company co-operated in an effort to keep the water right in Springdale. Springdale offered to buy it, somehow. Enter another strange factor. Some of those out-of-town dreamers wanted to build a golf course – which needed a pipeline! In rare, perhaps miraculous circumstances, the right people were in Springdale that critical year to change Springdale forever.

The developer paid the town for water connections in advance so the Town could buy the water rights from the Irrigation Company. The Irrigation Company used their money to leverage a loan to construct a pressurized system. Springdale got rights to the river water! The Irrigation Company got a pipeline! The developer got a lot of grief.

(There was a lawsuit; it was settled; the developer probably came out all right in the end, but never got any credit for the help.)

Springdale suddenly had enough water. A water treatment plant was built. Another water tank and bigger water lines were installed. New subdivisions were approved. New homes and businesses were built. Then more and more things started happening. New parks, new playgrounds, new shuttles. A new town hall. A community center! The poverty consciousness had disappeared with the water shortage. Springdale was no longer fearful. Springdale was wealthy in water, which changed everything. Springdale grew up and became the lovely, welcoming place it is because it finally had a right to some of the river water running down its heart line.

Recent engineering studies and buildout analyses have shown that Springdale Town’s culinary water rights are inadequate to supply the buildout population. Again, river water will be needed, and as more and more acres of land are developed rather than cultivated, the smaller the number of second-feet would appear on a re-adjudicated decree. Keeping the river water in Springdale is important beyond words and there are ways to help. Shareholders of the Irrigation Company are the keepers of our future, because only they can take the steps needed to protect their own river water rights.

Fay Cope, Springdale Town Clerk

Originally published in the Town of Springdale News    January 2013
as part of the Coming Home to Springdale series.
See An Invitation to Share your Story.
Reprinted by permission of Fay Cope


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