Q&A by Leia Larsen • Photos by Benjamin Zack • Standard-Examiner Staff
Weber River Commissioner Cole Panter admits most people have no idea what he does.
His role, however, is vital in ensuring all the farmers, businesses and residents living in the Weber River Basin receive the water they need. He oversees the entirety of the river, from its headwaters and tributaries to its outlet at the Great Salt Lake.
It’s a tough job that takes a background in engineering, time spent sifting through complex water rights and a lot of patience sorting out who gets what, especially when there’s not enough to go around.
The river commissioner technically works for the state of Utah, under the state engineer, and he or she is elected for four-year terms by committees representing the river’s many irrigation companies and water distributors. Panter will have held the position for three years this fall.
He spoke with the Standard-Examiner about how water is shared among many thirsty users in the basin and the challenges of overseeing a vital river in the nation’s second-driest state. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s an average day like for you?
It’s different depending on the season. Obviously, irrigation season is a little busier than non-irrigation season. During irrigation season, it’s waking up at 6 a.m., checking all the stream gauges on the system, seeing where flows are at, reservoir storages levels and that sort of thing.
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I deal with smaller irrigation companies that were established back when pioneers came that might still have farms and water.
Then you have bigger entities who store water, like Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, Davis and Weber Counties Canal Co. and Weber River Water Users Association. They make calls on their storage water, and I’m adjusting any releases out of reservoirs that need to happen.
What does that mean, to adjust to releases? Are you physically going up to the reservoirs?
No. All these entities have dam tenders that are either close by or can get their quickly in case of emergency. I call them, and they make the adjustment.
How do you measure how much water from the river is going where?
It’s a flume or weir. When they divert the water, it runs through a control structure, and they take a reading on it. We measure stream flows in cubic feet per second, then reservoir volumes in acre feet. Typically, 1 CFS for one day equals 2 acre-feet.
There are so many small irrigation companies diverting water from the Ogden and Weber rivers. It seems impossible to know where they all operate. Even some of the bigger water providers keep better records than others. What’s your system for keeping track of it all?
We don’t monitor all the irrigation companies. I’d say we track around 90 percent.
The ones we don’t monitor either don’t significantly impact the system or are self-regulated through the tributary itself — it will dry up. There’s not enough water making it down the tributary to the Weber River.
I have a spreadsheet with all the water rights and their priority dates, too. I can look and see how much flow these entities need and calculate the natural flow of the system. It’s a matter of asking, “Do we have enough flow to satisfy these people with older water rights?”
If not, we need to make a priority cut.
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What’s the smallest irrigation company operating on the Wasatch Front side of the Weber-Ogden basin?
There are some small ones we probably don’t monitor, but I’d say one of the smaller one is Mound Fort Irrigation No. 6. Their diversion is on Wall Avenue and just below 12th Street. There’s only one diversion on that one I know of, which comes from shares in Pineview Reservoir, and it’s for a 10-acre farm.
So we have that old saying in the West that ‘whiskey’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting over.’ Do you run into a lot of conflict?
I think for the most part people get it. Sometimes when land is sold and someone new comes in, that’s when a conflict happens. They either aren’t familiar with water law or are not familiar with the irrigation company.
But there is a conflict where I’d say that saying applies — that export of the Weber River Water to the Provo River drainage through the Weber-Provo Canal. A lot of people on the Weber side don’t like that.
Who gets upset about that? Is it smaller farmers or bigger irrigation companies?
It’s both. A lot of these irrigation companies have been in the same family since they were established. Some priority dates on these companies go back to the 1840s, so they’ve been here for a long time.
Then the Bureau of Reclamation came in and built Echo Reservoir and the Weber-Provo Canal because they’re a shareholder that bought shares in Echo Reservoir. They built a canal to deliver those shares to Provo. That happened in the 1930s sometime. So you can imagine with the people already established here, it’s probably been engrained in them for years that they’re “stealing” Weber River water.
You can’t necessarily blame them. But the water right is there. They have the right to divert that water; I can’t deny that.
What do you do if you catch someone violating rights to divert, pumping water when they’re not supposed to?
We place a tag on their head gate saying they need to cease diverting and to contact me. If they continue to divert, it would escalate to the enforcement officer with the Utah Division of Water Rights. They’d be called to either assess criminal charges or fines.
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That must not be too common?
No, it’s really not. A lot of times it’s people who just moved here and threw a pump on the river and started irrigating because they didn’t know. Sometimes it’s a smaller farmer, and we didn’t know they have a water right.
How do you know water right holders aren’t overwatering?
If it’s a larger diversion, we have them put a meter on it. If it’s smaller area, then we’re looking at the ground, seeing what they’re irrigating and making a calculation.
We don’t have the manpower to police everything. But we try to at least use our best judgment on people who are diverting, looking at what they’re watering, how big their pump is. We can then assess whether we make them put on a meter that we can record every year.
Do we have more water on paper than we do in the rivers? Is it over-appropriated?
I would say yes and no. You could say the Weber River and Ogden River are over-appropriated depending on the year we have. Junior water rights won’t be satisfied every year, but some years they could be satisfied.
Is there anything about Utah’s water law you find frustrating?
The most frustrating thing is that water, on a whole, is vital. Yet no one realizes where it comes from or how systems operate. Not to say that’s the public’s fault.
I think there’s poor documentation, poor records and poor ways to find any information on water rights and how things operate. There’s a lack of knowledge not due to ignorance but due to resources.