August 2017 Interim Session Update: Water Rights and the Struggle for Power

Commission on Federalism: August 2017

Ah, Federalism — Utah legislators’ favorite topic. Representative Ivory is still pushing for a scholarship essay, in which students detail “how federalism secures the blessings of liberty.” President Niederhauser elicited a round of applause for lamenting the loss of state sovereignty, and Senator Dayton claimed the federal government is trying to control 100 percent of Utah’s water. It was an interesting meeting, to be sure.

Article V Convention

President Niederhauser reported on the status of the Article V convention. Essentially, they are still in the process of creating rules for the convention. He discussed the importance of having bi-partisan input on creating these rules so that when the convention takes place (if it does), the legislators will be able to create solutions instead of bickering about procedure. I thought it admirable that he consistently emphasized the importance of bipartisan support — even if I find his views on federal government a little exaggerated.

Water Rights and the Bullying BLM

Randy Parker, vice-president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, took most of the meeting time to discuss the history of water rights ownership in Utah. While the topic is incredibly complex and nuanced, he simplifies it to a simple narrative: “bullying” BLM officials are stealing multi-generational ranchers water rights. What he hurriedly glosses over, however, is the complex history of the acquisition of water rights, including the facts that 1) the water is on federal leased land, and 2) in the 1970s and 1980s the ranchers willingly gave BLM those rights in most cases. But, no matter.

Throughout the meeting, Parker repeatedly accused the BLM of using bullying tactics to gain water rights. He feels granting more resources to the state engineer would help solve contested water right disputes. He remained vague when asked what those resources would be, however. After his presentation, Senator Dayton piped up to say the actions of BLM officials directly show the federal government’s attempt to completely disenfranchise the state. She believes that the federal government is trying to control all of Utah’s water and losing control of its water is synonymous to losing statehood. At least, that is her take on the situation.

The legislators also heard anecdotal testimonies from the Wood family, a six plus generation ranching family near Cedar City. His family livelihood and tradition depend on the land, so he is understandably upset by changes in some federal actions. However, I believe he went too far when he compared his plight to the plight of Native Americans. He said that he used to trust the government and then, with sarcasm dripping from his words, he asked “who wouldn’t trust the [federal] government? Just ask the Indians. Now you could say, ‘ask the private property owner’.” An unsavory comparison, I would say.

Unfortunately, it seemed the members of the committee were sympathetic to the rancher’s plights. It appears that the committee members will use this complicated water rights issues to stir up more anti-federal sentiments throughout the Western states.

General Thoughts on Utah’s Federalist Agenda

It is easy to have sympathy for the ranchers. Water is essential to their ranches, and their ranches do represent years of family tradition and industry. However, their unique situation cannot be the only narrative. While agriculture does own the majority of water rights, that water affects municipalities, all types of industries, and, of course, the natural environment. I was disappointed that only one loud voice was heard.

Finally, those on this committee love to throw around the phrase, “the people’s voice.” According to the committee, the federal government has silenced Utahns. Embracing the federalist agenda will give Utahns’ their voice back —  a voice that the state legislature will apparently hear and respond to so much better than the federal government. The irony of this rhetoric, though, was too much. By pushing the federalist agenda, particularly in relation to public lands and the associated rights, it could not be clearer that legislators do not listen to the people’s voice. It is unlikely that these elected officials who proclaim the blessed liberty of federalism will actually listen to the voice of the people. Unless, of course, that voice comes from someone wearing ranchers boots.

– Laura Boyer, Karen Shepherd Policy and Advocacy Fellow

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