Water rights adjudication, Utah style

Here in New Mexico, in the relatively populous Middle Rio Grande Valley, we have no expectation that water rights – the legal question of who is entitled to the use of how much water – will ever be clearly determined, at least not in the lifetimes of anyone involved in water management today. The institutional transaction costs – the time and money and resources required to sort out the water rights – are prohibitive as our law is now structured. Far small adjudications – fewer water rights holders, less water – have taken more than half a century in New Mexico.

One school of thought holds that this lack of clarity cripples our ability to manage water. The other school of thought (toward which I lean) holds that we’ve muddled through to date, and that we’ll continue to do so with ad hoc management tools that route around this problem.

In Utah, they’ve decided to throw state resources at their version of this problem, according to this Salt Lake Tribune piece by Emma Penrod:

For some river systems, such as the Virgin and Weber rivers, adjudication is done. But the Utah Lake/Jordan River system covering heavily populated Utah and Salt Lake counties remains largely untouched. That watershed, he said, likely has more water rights tied to it than any other in Utah.

Because of its population, Bingham said water rights in Salt Lake County have been unaddressed since the 1980s, when the division last opened a new area in the county for adjudication. Back then, a lack of cash led Bingham to predict it would take another 100-150 years to fully document water rights statewide.

But the 2017 Utah Legislature set aside nearly $1.9 million in sales tax money to help sort through water rights, leading officials to refocus efforts on Salt Lake County. The Division of Water Rights now hopes to triple or quadruple its staff and have Utah’s most populous county adjudicated in 10-15 years.