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In the late 1980s, funding for the Central Utah Project (CUP) was poised to end without an act of the U.S. Congress to increase its budget allocation. Most Utah politicians, water managers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expected another blank check from Congress to allow the CUP to continue. In contrast, local and national environmental groups, who knew the history of environmental abuses caused by water development in the west, were content to see the CUP wither and die.

One solitary Utah politician — Rep. Wayne Owens — advocated for a new paradigm. In his view, if the Central Utah Project were to continue, both water conservation and environmental protection would need to become critical and fundamental aspects of the CUP, a remarkable departure from the usual mode of western water projects.

With the assistance of two talented aides — Kenley Brunsdale and Michael Weland — Wayne Owens skillfully forged a consensus among competing groups, including national and local environmental groups, U.S. Sen. Robert Bennett and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, then led by Don Christiansen. After several years of negotiation, the CUP Completion Act was enacted in the fall of 1992 and signed into law by President George Bush.

This new paradigm met with fierce resistance from some communities. Water that was planned to be sent to agriculture in the Sevier Basin was redirected to Wasatch Front communities and, although compensation was offered for this loss, Garfield, Millard, Piute and Sevier Counties angrily rejected this option and withdrew from the CUP. Conversely, Sanpete County made aggressive use of the compensatory benefits available in CUPCA, and to date, Sanpete has expanded its water supply more than any other CUP county based on water produced per county resident.

Notwithstanding the naysayers, Wayne's vision for the CUP took hold and the benefits have been immense. One important element of the legislation was Section 207, a program for funding municipal water conservation with the caveat that a portion of the conserved water be dedicated to environmental objectives such as stream flow. This section literally doubled the amount of water produced by the CUP at a vastly reduced cost.

The newly-minted CUP also included the creation of the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission (URMCC) to manage and fund environmental restoration to partially restore and offset lost ecological resources as a consequence of water development in Utah. One highlight of this effort was the restoration of the middle Provo River corridor in Heber Valley to its original condition. This remarkable achievement has shown the people of Utah how a natural river corridor protects wildlife, fisheries, and water quality. Property values in Wasatch County have increased spectacularly in part because of this project.

Numerous other rivers and lakes in Utah also benefitted. The Diamond Fork River has been restored and is a wonderful resource for the nearby Wasatch Front. Stream flows were provided for Uintah Basin streams such as Current Creek and the West Fork of the Duchesne, which would have been left dry by the original CUP. Inadequate flows were increased on the Strawberry River below Strawberry Reservoir and in Rock Creek in the Uinta Basin, one of the most pristine and natural streams in Utah. Flows were also restored to the Lake Fork River below Moon Lake, and public access has been created on dozens of miles of streams. Twenty-five lakes in the Uinta Mountains, which once operated as wildly fluctuating reservoirs, have been stabilized and returned to a natural condition. Lands around Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake have been protected as well.

Wayne Owens gave Utah a new vision of water development, where competing factions were required to sit at the same table and seek an elusive balance between perceived human needs and ecological health. With so many water bodies in Utah in desperate straits — including Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake and Scofield Reservoir — it must be asked whether we are wise enough, and capable enough, to once again rise to the vision he laid out for us.

Fred Reimherr is a member of the University of Utah Department of Psychiatry and is active in stream restoration work across the state of Utah. Darrell Mensel is the former executive director of the Utah Outdoor Interests Coordinating Council, which provided environmental input on the final phases of the Central Utah Project.