Carbon stands almost alone in opposition to Gooseberry Dam
After 80 years of squabbling over the water that flows from Sanpete County into the Price River drainage, the idea of a Gooseberry Narrows Dam still lives, and seems stronger than ever. The federal Bureau of Reclamation on Monday released the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the controversial project.
The BOR will issue a record of decision in 30 days depending somewhat on what comments it gets from the public. The EIS is not necessarily the last word in getting the dam built for the interests of Sanpete County, but it could go a long way in promoting it in a very conservative environment in Washington, D.C.
However, there is still a lot that stands in the way of the construction of the dam. The EIS was positive about building the project, but it only represents one step in getting the money to build it. That money will have to come from the federal government, because most other sources (other than possibly some state money) are not available. With huge cuts possibly coming because of the compromise worked out last August to keep the country from falling off a financial cliff, money for such a project may not be available.
While the EIS document is over 900 pages, its recommendations seem simple and direct. The Army Corps of Engineers (who would look at the factors in the project) can consider four alternatives, with them supposedly being able to chose the one with the least vironmental damage. To most people that would seem to be the one in which nothing would be done.
But instead the report points out that the preferred alternative is the most drastic; built a reservoir with a 17,000 acre foot capacity which would be stored behind a 120 foot high dam with a length of 550 feet. The surface of the full reservoir would have 604 acres. The water that is stored there would be used to provide water year around for agriculture in northern Sanpete County and some municipal/industrial use as well. The water provided would amount to about to 5,400 acre feet per year. But that isn't all the water the reservoir would need. It would have a storage pool of 12,000 acre feet. One has to also consider evaporation from that entire body of water.
The project would also include renovating and improving water tunnels to the Sanpete area to carry the water.
The dam, which has been discussed for the better part of a century, has been the target of lawsuits, rhetoric and battles galore. Additionally, the project will also need funding. Being that Congress has been on the "austerity" binge in the last few years it would seem that the chances of getting the money to build it would be remote. With the statements by various prominent Utah leaders about cutting the federal budget it would seem to many that they would not be willing to see the money go to such a project.
However, the opposite seems to be true, based on statements made in the last few months by the Governor's office, by the new congressman representing Carbon County, and by the senior senator from Utah.
Last week Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell did a lunch date in Carbon County and when asked about the dam he said that what the Governor had said last year during a Sanpete County visit ("You don't have to convince me about Gooseberry") was what the administration was hanging their hat on. They think the dam should be built.
Also last week Rep. Jason Chaffetz visited town in a campaign stop. His district, Congressional District 3, previously represented Sanpete County, but now represents other areas, including Carbon County. Tuesday he was reelected to represent the district.
Last June he told a group of people (as reported by the Sanpete Messenger) that regardless of the change in district representation he would stick to his word about seeing the dam get built. During that stop-over during dinner at a local restaurant he said basically the same thing.
"I am a man of principles," he said. "I said I would support building it and I still will support it."
Sen. Orrin Hatch has also come out in support of building the project, while Sen. Mike Lee, the junior senator from Utah, said last spring during a visit to Carbon County that he had not studied the issue because it had not come before Congress. However it would be hard to imagine him bucking the trend of the other representatives in the state as well as the fact they are all in the same party.
Jim Matheson, who won the Fourth Congressional seat on Tuesday night and the only representative that wanted to find another solution, is now representing the very area that wants to build the dam. What his take on the dam is now remains to be seen. His continued service in Congress may depend on how he treats those he now represents. Unlike Chaffetz, who has a big political base in Utah County and can tell the voters in Carbon that he supports a project most of them oppose, Matheson may not be able to do that.
Does this leave Carbon County alone, with few political allies, in fighting to stop construction? With the exception of our own representatives to the state legislature, it appears so.
Both State Senator David Hinkins (District 27) and newly elected Representative Jerry Anderson (District 69) of Price agree that the dam should not be built.
"I am totally opposed to its construction," said Hinkins. "I am the chair of the Natural Resources Appropriations Committee and they would have to get some money from there to build it. I would do my best to stop that."
Anderson questions the viability of their claim to water.
"How do they figure that water belongs to them?" he asked on Wednesday morning. "We would be left out in the lurch without it."
The BOR has gone to great lengths in their EIS pointing out that this would not really be a federal project. They are trying to spin it as something else. They continue to point out that the dam would be built and operated by the Sanpete Water Conservancy District. But the fact is that no one else will really touch financing the project other than the feds. It doesn't appear that dam could be built for under $50 million and over that it has become a different animal and doesn't fall under the small dams regulations.
And Carbon is not totally unprepared. The water users, the Carbon Water Conservancy District and others are no fools. There are holes in the EIS, particularly pertaining to the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as other flaws.
"We have been planning on this for a long time," said Carbon County Commissioner Mike Milovich, who is also on the board of the Carbon Water Conservancy District. "We have a plan and we will be vigorously opposing the construction of the dam."
So in the end, once again, while political power seems so prevalent against Carbon on this issue, the county has been there before and survived.