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Oil and gas leasing in Washington County could threaten water supplies and impair the values that make Zion National Park one of the crown jewels of the national park system, according to thousands of comments flooding the Bureau of Land Management.
Opponents are urging the agency to reconsider its proposal to auction leases on the Kolob Terrace road just west of the park.
Its sister agency the National Park Service is asking the BLM to defer a leasing decision so the two can work with local authorities to address mineral management on the lands surrounding the park.
"Development of oil and gas operations may not be the most appropriate or best use of public lands at the gateway to Zion National Park," wrote Zion superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh in a March 7 memo to the BLM. The BLM's draft environmental assessment fails to gauge the impacts drilling and energy production would have on local economy or water, he noted.
That assessment "needs to examine the relative importance of recreation and tourism on the local economy and analyze the potential petroleum development impacts to community character, the quality of the visitor experience and the environment upon which tourism is based," Bradybaugh wrote.
Since 1999, when the BLM last updated its management plan for the St. George field office, park visitation has climbed 72 percent to 4.3 million, driving $270 million in economic activity.
An extended comment period closes Thursday on BLM's draft assessment on three leases covering 4,730 acres. Some 40,000 have been submitted and the BLM has so far spent $28,000 on studying proposed leases in Washington County, where no federal land has been under lease in nearly a decade despite a history of drilling in the region dating back a century.
The three parcels, along with nine others that BLM declined to offer, were "nominated" for leasing by St. George businessman Jeff Reber, who said his company Utah Exploration and Drilling LLC is not interested developing the land for its oil and gas, but for water.
In an interview, Reber claimed to hold water rights around southern Utah with a partner, Castle Resources, a Texas firm that has acquired oil and gas leases on state trust parcels near the Virgin River.
However, a review of a water-rights database maintained by the Utah State Engineer's Office indicates neither company holds rights to any water in Utah. Reber does hold rights to a few acre-feet in Iron County.
Concern for water supplies has motivated the Washington County and the town of Springdale to oppose the BLM leasing proposal.
One of the leases on North Creek is immediately above a diversion on the Virgin River that provides 80 percent of the Washington County Water Conservancy District's drinking water, according to executive director Ron Thompson. The district has similar concerns for another lease farther west in the Ash Creek drainage. One parcel covers several new drinking water wells.
"If drilling is allowed, it has to protect those water resources before anything is authorized," Thompson said. "We have to have adequate assurances that it won't affect the water supply."
The Washington County Commission and the town council of Springdale have both passed resolutions opposing leases near Zion; Toquerville was expected to consider a similar measure Thursday evening.
Springdale's resolution calls on BLM to identify other areas in Washington County better suited for drilling and to exercise caution to minimize impacts. North Creek is not a good choice, the resolution says, since 170,000 Zion visitors use the Kolob road to access backcountry trailheads serving the park's northern highlands.
"Allowing oil and gas development along the scenic highways enjoyed by residents and visitor [sic] alike may detract from the scenic nature of the area and negatively impact the visitor experience," the Springdale resolution states.
The BLM's 99-page draft environmental assessment does not analyze impacts to water and other natural resources under the logic that leasing in and of itself does not disturb the ground.
"However there is a possibility that exploration and development could occur in the future," its study says. Possible impacts on water resources should be analyzed in a separate environmental study "at the time of the proposed development," the BLM's assessment says.
Environmental groups challenged this position as an artful dodge, arguing these leases would enable development where currently there is none, other than a legacy of dry holes. And the Park Service memo concurred that the BLM should analyze industrial impacts prior to leasing, lest the agency lock itself into a certain course.
"Our experience," Bradybaugh wrote, "is that additional mitigations can be difficult to apply once a lease is issued."