Decades ago, Sanpete County was given a hollow promise by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) that the Gooseberry Narrows dam would be built. As time passed, Sanpete County made substantial concessions to see the project through, yet there is still no dam.
So far, the Gooseberry Narrows project has had a long, unsuccessful history. In 1933, the project was shelved because it was "too complicated and too costly." It was put on ice again in 1951 and 1959 for the same reasons. Now in 2003, the dam is still too costly and too complicated.
Unfortunately, decades of frustration have ramped up emotions to the point that proponents of the project have lost sight of its excessive cost and minimal benefits and have overlooked water conservation as a viable altemative.
Currently, the Sanpete Water Conservancy District (SWCD) is trying to secure a loan from the federal government to get the project going. The project will deliver a mere 5,400 acre feet of water, less than one-tenth of the water that the SWCD says is required for the project area.
However, more than 12,000 acre-feet of water can be saved for nearly a third of the dam's projected cost by instituting basic water conservation practices.
As it now stands, the BOR puts a $25 million price tag on the project, yet it openly confesses that the real costs won't be known until the project is finished. In reality, the project will likely cost a lot more than $25 million, all of which must be repaid by the citizens of Sanpete County.
Part of the problem stems back to the SWCD's primary purpose: "to complete the Gooseberry Narrows Project." It is no wonder that the financial worthiness of the project has been lost in the pursuit.
The SWCD, a non-elected body with ad valorem taxing authority (meaning it raises money by collecting taxes) is now on its third attempt in eight years to secure the loan. Millions of Sanpete County's tax dollars have already been spent by the SWCD, yet SanpeteCounty is no closer to having the dam built.
In the meantime, the SWCD continues to pay lawyers when it could be paying farmers to upgrade their water delivery systems.
Even if the project is finished, Sanpete will still need more water to get a reliable third crop of alfalfa. In all likelihood, the water will be converted to municipal uses, developing homes instead of supplying irrigation water.
Those who pay taxes in Sanpete County, should be asking some questions. Is this project the best way to spend over $25 million? Who will directly benefit from the project? How much will it cost individuals to actually get the water? Will the water be reserved for agricultural use? Do other alternatives exist?
One solution often overlooked is water conservation. With conservation, everyone wins.
The SWCD should be commended for its promotion of water conservation, but a lot more can be done. Thousands of acres in the project area are still flood-irrigated.
Miles upon miles of canals are either unlined or in such a state of disrepair that they lose nearly half their water to seepage. Sediment is filling up storage ponds to the point that they are nearly useless.
The Narrows Tunnel (which conveys water from Fairview Lakes to Cottonwood Creek) is very near collapse. According to the SWCD, crops in the project area require 30,000 acre-feet of water, yet the diversion requirement calls for over 61,000 acre-feet due to "conveyance inefficiencies."
Most people in Sanpete County, for their own reasons, support the Gooseberry Narrows Project. These people would be better served if the SWCD got over its obsession with the Gooseberry Narrows and redirected its efforts toward countywide water conservation.
The funds for the Gooseberry Narrows could be applied to a solution with immediate results. The benefits could be spread throughout the entire county, money would no longer be wasted on endless pursuits, and the Sanpete Valley would be filled with farms and ranches instead of strip malls and subdivisions.
David Brown from Salt Lake City is a program associate with the Utah Rivers Council.