Geologist: Southern Utah aquifer could be developed

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A deep aquifer, filled with prehistoric water that has filtered through a porous formation of Navajo sandstone, slumbers deep underground in southern Utah, waiting to be tapped.

At least that is what a retired geology professor believes. E. Blair Maxfield wants a test well drilled to confirm or discredit his theory-- and state officials acknowledge he could be right -- about the uncharted aquifer that could extend east of Cedar City and north of Zion National Park.

However, even if the water source exists with sufficient quantities to make it practical to develop, it likely would remain untouched.

Kurt Vest, the regional engineer with the state engineer's office, said the state likely would not allow it to be pumped.

As it depletes, "You could start drawing down [other, well-known] resources," Vest said.

Brian McInerny, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said the key to drawing from aquifers is how well they are recharged.

"It's a balancing act," he said.

Despite such hurdles, Maxfield's theory has captured the attention of water-conservancy folks looking for ways to meet growing demands in southwest Utah desert communities. To that end, they are moving forward on the proposed Lake Powell pipeline and other water programs.

Maxfield, a retired Southern Utah University geology professor, bases his theory on 1960s mapping he did for Shell Oil Co. in eastern and southern Utah.

He said they struck water everywhere they drilled through Navajo sandstone thousands of feet below the surface.

Maxfield said, based on earlier geologic studies of the Markagunt Plateau in southwestern Utah, he believes a Navajo sandstone formation extends 30 miles from just east of Cedar City and from Springdale north for 50 miles.

He believes the aquifer contained in the 1,500-square-mile formation feeds some springs, but is not a contributor to main waterways in the area, including the Virgin and Sevier rivers and Coal and Mammoth creeks. He said those streams draw from groundwater sources closer to the surface.

Kal Kahler, a retired hydrologist in Cedar City who has worked with Maxfield on defining the aquifer, agrees. He estimates that some 30,000 acre feet of water from rain -- and snowfall, seeps every year into the aquifer.

"We can't account for the water going into [streams], so where else could it go? he asks.

Maxfield believes if test wells show the water is in sufficient quantities, the best area to drill would be east of Duck Creek Village where he believes the aquifer lies about 4,000 feet below the surface.

The water could then be pumped west to a point near Cedar Breaks National Monument where gravity could then draw the water into the Cedar Valley with possible hydroelectric stations along the way.

The two men have compiled their findings in a report presented to the board of the Central iron County Water Conservancy District.

District Director Scott Wilson said his board is intrigued by Maxfield's study. While developing the water is unlikely, he said, the district is not dismissing the possibility.

"As a conservancy district, we have to look at all reasonable resources."

An obstacle Wilson sees, in addition to environmental studies and permits from the U.S. Forest Service, is the cost of drilling and pumping the water.

"His [Maxfield's] proposal calls for drilling at significant depths, which is expensive," said Wilson. "And even if you roll the dice and strike gold, you'd have to file for water rights."

Wilson said if the water is found, many different interests would be competing for it. And the conservancy district would have to show in public hearings that drawing from the aquifer would injure those with existing water rights.

He said the conservancy district instead will focus on developing its share of water from the proposed $1 billion Lake Powell pipeline . And it has filed for rights to 37,000 acre feet of water in areas of western Iron and Beaver counties.