Controversy goes back to before Carbon was settled
The ongoing conflicts between Carbon and Sanpete counties may have started with the failure of Mammoth Dam in Gooseberry Narrows.
But water disputes between the counties surfaced before the dam collapsed.
The first major damming of a stream feeding the Price River drainage occurred in 1869, when private concerns from Sanpete built a structure to impound head water.
Fairview Lake, as it became known, was actually two bodies of water created by one dam. The reservoir, as it exists today, is presently owned by Cottonwood-Gooseberry Irrigation Company, although restricted public access is allowed.
The construction and operation of Fairview Lake appears to have prompted the idea that water could be taken from the Price drainage for use in Sanpete County.
When the settlement of the Sanpete Valley began, occasional travelers merely passed through Carbon County. No non-native American settlements were established for a number of years.
The perpetuation of Fairview Lake delivering water to the Sanpete Valley through an access tunnel has followed Utah law's premise of "first in time, first in right."
The drainage for Gooseberry Creek that feeds Fish Creek and Price River is primarily located in Sanpete County.
The situation has resulted in proponents calling for channeling the water in west and south directions rather than north and east.
The original planners and designers of Mammoth Reservoir were primarily from Sanpete County. But the Price Irrigation Company actually constructed the dam to store water for use in the Castle Valley area.
After Mammoth Dam collapsed in 1917, other development projects began to appear.
Although water rushing down the canyon from the broken dam caused nearly $1 million in damages, the disaster did not put a damper on the county's plan to build a local reservoir storage system.
The primary objective underlying the plan focused on storing water in the reservoir for use in the county in the late summer or during droughts.
In 1921, the Price Water Conservation District was formed from the local irrigation company.
During the next couple of years, PRWCD determined that a better dam site was located in Pleasant Valley, near Scofield.
By 1925, construction had started on the dam. The reservoir was filled in time for the 1926 irrigation season.
The conservation district attempted to develop an agreement with the independent ditch companies in the Carbon area to supply water to all users. But several agreements did not work, often resulting in confusion about water rights and distribution.
Less than two years later, Carbon County almost faced a similar disaster to the collapse of Mammoth Dam. But the second disaster was averted.
By 1928, the dam had suffered a number of small leaks. During the next two years, the tunnel that carried water downstream had problems on a few occasions.
Finally, in May, 1928, a family of beavers created a leak in the dam that couldn't be stopped. But, rather than allowing thousands of acre feet of water to once again rush down the canyon, local residents were able to affect drainage that relieved the pressure before a collapse occurred.
This near-disaster resulted in the state demanding that the spillway be lowered, so that pressure on the dam would lessen. This action would lower the storage capacity of the reservoir by almost half.
Meanwhile, Sanpete County residents and officials continued to clamor for more water than Fairview Lake could provide. Everyone was hit hard by the drought of the 1930s, a spell with low water that lasted almost the entire decade.
At the same time, the Great Depression had hit. Few people had money and no one could secure the backing for any large projects. In some ways, the conflict between the two counties intensified during this time because of tight water supplies.
As the 1930s wore on, government projects to improve the economy and put citizens to work began to appear.
Because of its location in the Colorado River drainage, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began to study projects for the area. One study led to the eventual creation of the Lower Gooseberry Reservoir in 1939. The reservoir was created below Fairview Lake and upstream from the site of the old Mammoth Dam.
Today, that lake still serves as a good fishing spot and controls a few thousand acre feet of water from the upper basin.
Reconstruction work was completed on the water structure in 1990, in order to meet modern specifications. Following the reconstruction, none of the water from the reservoir flowed to the Sanpete Valley, so the conflict continued.
With the beginning of World War II, the two counties remained at odds regarding a way for Sanpete to use water that naturally drained into the Colorado drainage, yet fell from the sky as moisture within their county boundaries. But the war changed things.
In 1942, federal officials were still casting a wary eye toward the privately-built Scofield Dam. The fear was that, at some point, the structure could fail. This time, instead of sending 11,000 acre feet of water down the canyon and into the valley, it could release as much as 30,000 acre feet.
Such a collapse would jeopardize not only the highways through the area, but also the Rio Grande rail lines. It could also disrupt communication lines to the west coast from the east and stop coal production at a number of mines that were needed to supply the war effort. One such company that would be affected by a dam break would be the Geneva Steel Plant that had been built by the war department in Orem. And this could come at a time when the United States was most vulnerable to an attack on the west coast by the Imperial Japanese Empire.
That whole episode in the reconstruction of what is known as Scofield Dam; set the stage for much of the conflict that has carried over to the present.
Editors note: This is a first in series of articles concerning the history of the Gooseberry Narrows Project and associated water projects on the Colorado Plateau.