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When Lance Anderson got a water-rights summons in the mail recently, he thought it might be a winning ticket.

Like many of his neighbors, Anderson said he heard water rights were valuable commodities, which made him wonder if he could claim one near the east Salt Lake City apartment complex he co-owns with Craig Robinson.

But, as was also true for most of his neighbors, there was no water right.

About 35,000 property owners in the downtown area and on the east bench have received court summons related to water-right claims, including more than 8,500 residents with property in the Dry Creek drainage area — in the vicinity of the University of Utah — and nearly 7,000 homes and businesses near City Creek.

Thanks to a recent state funding increase, thousands of additional notices likely are on their way.

In the vast majority of cases, officials say, they don't mean recipients unknowingly own a valuable right to Utah's water. But the summons do signal the neighborhoods are next in line for a century-old, and still largely unfinished, state project known as water adjudication.

"If you have a valid claim," said Blake Bingham, assistant state engineer for Utah's Division of Water Rights, "you probably know about it."

The state lacks records on hundreds of historic water rights, some of which predate statehood, that may still be in use today. Adjudication, as it is called, is the legal process by which the Division of Water Rights is attempting to document how much water is already divvied out to the state's property owners.

The process involves collecting water claims from all independent water users, identifying documented water rights that have been abandoned, settling legal disputes and — often after years or even decades of work — publishing a court decree ratifying who is permitted to use Utah's water.

Water as a right • The Utah Constitution grants water rights — that is, the legal right to use water — to all property owners who had used water for drinking or irrigation prior to Utah's statehood, but the individual rights were never documented by the state, Bingham said.

Early water managers recognized the rights needed to be recorded if Utah wanted to allocate future rights responsibly, he said, but no funding was provided to complete the project, so many of these historic water rights remain undocumented to this day.

Adjudication began in the early 1900s, said Bingham, who oversees the process.

For some river systems, such as the Virgin and Weber rivers, adjudication is done. But the Utah Lake/Jordan River system covering heavily populated Utah and Salt Lake counties remains largely untouched. That watershed, he said, likely has more water rights tied to it than any other in Utah.

Because of its population, Bingham said water rights in Salt Lake County have been unaddressed since the 1980s, when the division last opened a new area in the county for adjudication. Back then, a lack of cash led Bingham to predict it would take another 100-150 years to fully document water rights statewide.

But the 2017 Utah Legislature set aside nearly $1.9 million in sales tax money to help sort through water rights, leading officials to refocus efforts on Salt Lake County. The Division of Water Rights now hopes to triple or quadruple its staff and have Utah's most populous county adjudicated in 10-15 years.

Use it or lose it • Most who receive the summons need to take no action, Bingham said. The 8,500-resident Dry Creek area has only 34 known water rights, he said, and the prospect of hundreds more surfacing is unlikely in a built-up area where most homes and businesses get their water from Salt Lake Public Utilities.

But those with either a known water right or an undocumented right to a well or some other diversion need to file a claim via additional paperwork that will arrive in the mail in June. If they do not, Bingham said, they could ultimately be denied use of their water when adjudication is complete.

"By doing nothing, you've in essence said, 'I'm not doing anything with this. This water right is abandoned,' " Bingham said.

Once adjudicated, no further water-right claims will be allowed, Bingham said. And in many areas, including Salt Lake County, while residents can file claims on existing water rights, no new water rights can be created, say, by drilling new wells.

So, how do you know if you have a water right?

Most residents who do are already aware of it, Bingham said, "because you've been fixing the well, or maintaining the head gate, for some time."

There might be an old well someplace on a property that could be claimed as a water right, Bingham said, but the odds of that are low. And, according to state law, the property owner has to prove they used the well within the past seven years in order to file a valid claim.

Property owners with connections to public utilities or who own shares in private irrigation companies do not own water rights, Bingham said. The utility or company holds the rights to the water and sells the water its diverts as a separate product to their customers.

If you have to ask • Nonetheless, Laura Briefer, director of Salt Lake City's public utilities, said plenty of residents have called since the summons started arriving. But like Bingham, she said if you don't already know you own a water right, you probably don't have one.

"If you don't have a well on your property or there is no established point of diversion," Briefer said, "it's probably safe to say that water right doesn't exist."

As for the water coming out of residents' taps, Briefer said the city owns the rights to divert that water, which it sells to customers as a commodity.

The rights to much of the water delivered by Salt Lake-area irrigation companies and canals also are owned by Salt Lake City Public Utilities, thanks to 1800s-era exchange agreements in which the irrigation companies sold their rights to the city in exchange for a more reliable source — the city's water system.

Salt Lake City is actively participating in state adjudication on behalf of its own municipal water rights, she said. Along with guaranteeing water quality, Briefer said, the city considers defending its water rights on behalf of residents an important part of its role as steward of water resources.

"Maintaining a water right requires a lot of diligent work," she said, "and that's part of our responsibility — a responsibility we take seriously so that our customers don't have to worry."

Getting real • Claims are not automatically recorded by the state when they are filed, Bingham said. They must be verified by inspectors from the Division of Water Rights. So he advised against "wasting time" by knowingly filing a bogus claim.

"Occasionally a speculator tries to say, 'I have a water right buried under my driveway,' " Bingham said.

Don't "create an imaginary water right," he said. "But now is a good time to look into getting that well fixed. If we come out to evaluate a water right, and the well appears to be working, we're not going to go CSI water rights. Put it back to beneficial use if it hasn't been used, and you'll preserve your water right."

Officials who inspect the claim may bring some law enforcement along, said Randy Tarantino, an adjudication specialist who works for Bingham. She said her co-workers have been shot at in the past.

If a property owner still thinks they have an undocumented water right, Bingham said, they're always welcome to drop by his office at the Department of Natural Resources for help filing a claim for investigation.

"What I recommend is file early, file often," Bingham said. "We'll figure it out."

For those who do preserve or acquire water rights, selling one can prove lucrative. Water rights in the Salt Lake area — if you can find some available — often go for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

That's why Anderson and Robinson ended up staying late one recent evening after a public meeting at the Department of Natural Resources.

"We know that water is a scarce resource" and therefore highly valuable, Robinson said. But in the end, Anderson added, "we learned that we have no water right."

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