Monday, November 9, 2015

Update on General Adjudications

The following article was written by David Hartvigsen, one of my partners at Smith Hartvigsen, PLLC, for the Water & The Law newsletter that our firm publishes on a quarterly basis. If you would like to receive an email version of the newsletter, please click here to join our mailing list.

There have been a few developments that water users in Utah should be aware of with respect to ongoing and future court proceedings called General Determinations of Water Rights or General Adjudications in river basins and sub-basins around the state. According to a General Adjudication status report on the Division of Water Rights ("DWR") website, there are currently 13 ongoing General Adjudications; most have been pending for decades, with the one on the Utah Lake/Jordan River drainage basin having been pending since 1936. These General Adjudications evaluate each water right within the basin being adjudicated and result in a decree on each water right which either disallows the water right (for such reasons as non-use) or validates the right with a new set of characteristics/limitations based on a Water Users Claim, a HydrographicSurvey, a Proposed Determination ("PD") from DWR, and any court hearing on objections to the findings in the PD. These newly validated water rights in the adjudication process become "decreed" rights. It is therefore absolutely essential that water users understand and participate in this General Adjudication process or they could potentially lose valuable water rights.

Of the 13 pending General Adjudications, I'm aware of recent activity in: Area 05 near Moab in the Southeastern Colorado River basin; Area 29 in the Bear River basin; and several areas in the Utah Lake/Jordan River basin, including Area 51 near Birdseye and Hobble Creek, Area 53 near Goshen, and Area 57 in the Harmony Park area and the Emigration Creek area. There is likely activity in a few other General Adjudications as well. Finally, there are also two different procedural matters that are being addressed in the Utah Lake/Jordan River General Adjudication and the State Engineer is proposing legislation to streamline all General Adjudications. These procedural and legislative matters should be of interest to all water users, even those in areas outside of the Utah Lake/Jordan River basin.

Legislative Proposal for the 2016 Session
The State Engineer has spearheaded an effort to find ways to both modernize and streamline the General Adjudication process. The results of that effort was recently presented to the Executive Water Rights Task Force. The main feature of the proposal is to get water users involved earlier in the process and to take more responsibility with asserting their water rights in the court proceeding. More specifically, once a water user receives notice that a General Adjudication is under way, the water user will be solely responsible for initiating preparation of a water user claim. DWR staff will assist upon request but will no longer prepare the forms on their own initiative and send them out to water users. Next, if a person or entity with a known water right fails to file a claim within the time specified in the notices, DWR staff will prepare and publish a "List of Unclaimed Rights of Record." This list will give water users one more chance to get their claims of record in the General Adjudication, but the penalty for filing at this stage is that the water user will be filing an objection to a determination that their water right has been abandoned and will need to submit sufficient evidence to overcome that determination. A final key point is that DWR staff will only do the Hydrographic Survey work on claims that have been filed, not on all water uses as has been the prior practice. Please watch for this legislation as it moves forward and get involved if you are either supportive or opposed to this proposal.

Appointment of a Special Master in the Utah Lake/Jordan River General Adjudication
DWR has also been asking the court in the Utah Lake/Jordan River General Adjudication to appoint a Special Master to assist with resolving objections and other specific issues in this long-pending case. The Special Master will be paid by specific appropriations by the Legislature to help speed up resolution of these adjudications. The concept is a good concept. The question is who should be appointed as this Special Master. An ideal candidate would be someone who is familiar with Utah water law, the Utah General Adjudication process, and general civil litigation procedure, but who also does not have any ties or conflicts of interests with water users in the area being adjudicated. We are not sure the ideal person exists and are watching to see who responds to open position notice being sent out by the court. Water users and other interested parties will be given a chance to weigh in on the decision of who to appoint once a pool of individuals is identified. Please watch for information and notices regarding this process as well.

Return Flow Credits for Imported Water
Finally, last year a settlement was reached and a stipulation was entered in the Utah Lake/Jordan River General Adjudication concerning a procedure for public input and protest on new applications for, and changes to existing formulas for, credits given to importers of water into this basin where the return flows migrate to Utah Lake. These credits are then typically used to allow for water stored in Deer Creek Reservoir, and potentially Jordanelle Reservoir, to be diverted directly to Salt Lake Valley for culinary use instead of flowing down the Provo River and into Utah Lake. The first such proposal to be considered under this new process is currently being processed by DWR. It was filed by the Provo River Water Users Association on Water Right No. 55-262. The new process appears to be working well, but this is a very complicated issue that could affect many water users on the Jordan River, so water users that may be affected will want to be watchful for notices regarding such Return Flow Credit proposals.

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