Shallow ditch has profound issues for Helper project
The fate of a little irrigation ditch on Helper's west side is posing some deep questions of law, fairness and public finance for the city's government.
It is the Bryner-Ploutz ditch, serving 26 customers with 31 connections inside city limits on the west side. As the city's multimillion-dollar reconstruction of water, sewer and storm drainage moves into that section of town, the little canal stands a good chance of disappearing.
If that happens, water rights older than both Utah statehood and the incorporation of Helper City will be in jeopardy.
John Jones, a Carbon County commissioner speaking as a private citizen at Thursday's city council meeting, warned the council that Utah law holds that water rights are property rights.
"The law says you can't impair delivery of water rights," he declared.
On the other hand, City Attorney Gene Strate told the council that the city may not be able to commit any funds from its improvement bonds to replace the ditch with pipe.
His research has found opinions that the city can only borrow money to benefit the citizens, according to state law. Bryner-Ploutz is a private corporation.
There's also a chance that by allocating some of the bond funds for the benefit of a corporation, the city bonds could lose their tax-exempt status under federal law.
And as far as Helper City or the Bryner-Ploutz company just writing a check, that is not feasible.
According to Erica Kardelis, a ditch company board member, the engineering estimate for piping the ditch is $136,000. That's more than $4,000 per customer, an expense that they would not have except for the city's project.
Kardelis also said that the in-city customers represent a third of the shareholders in the whole irrigation company. The loss of them and their revenue could endanger the survival of the whole enterprise, she said.
"We all agree you have the rights," said council member Robert Bradley. "The issue is how it is going to be paid."
With its hands apparently tied by laws governing bonds and little unrestricted cash in its coffers, the city is also strapped.
During a lengthy back-and-forth discussion of the nuances involved, at idea took shape that it might be possible for the city and the company to split the cost somehow.
Shareholder David Dornan said he could see a benefit to users to have the ditch piped and pressurized, and irrigators might be willing to invest some money in the convenience simply turning a valve to irrigated their gardens and lawns.
Rather than spend more time at its regular meeting, the council decided to conduct a special meeting Wednesday with the ditch and infrastructure situation as the only agenda items. That meeting will begin at 6 p.m.