The Strawberry Water Users Association (SWUA) delivers 71,000 acre-feet of water to more than 40,000 acres of orchards and alfalfa fields, as well as burgeoning communities on the southern Wasatch Front in Utah County. SWUA uses the infrastructure of the Strawberry Valley Project, the first Bureau of Reclamation project in Utah, to move water from the Colorado River basin into the Great Basin. For General Manager Jeremy Sorensen, delivering water on behalf of SWUA is a family affair. Since SWUA was founded 100 years ago, there have only been 20 years in which there was not a Sorensen on the board of directors. Mr. Sorensen’s father is currently one of his 15 board members. Mr. Sorensen started with the district as its accountant and moved into the general manager position in 2011. Kris Polly, editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader, spoke to Mr. Sorensen about SWUA’s long history of service, his efforts to transfer the title of some of the project’s infrastructure and water rights back to SWUA, and the importance of outreach to the next generation of water users.
Kris Polly: Please describe the agricultural lands you serve.
Jeremy Sorensen: Agricultural production in our area is quite diverse. In terms of orchards, we have cherry, apple, and even pluot, which is a hybrid between a plum and an apricot. Some growers raise raspberries; others raise pumpkins or watermelons. The majority of growers produce alfalfa, corn, wheat, and barley.
Our growers use flood and sprinkler irrigation. Being in a mountain valley, those up on the hillside prefer the sprinklers, while those in the lower lands prefer flood. Flood irrigation helps push salts down and keep the nutrients going to the plant.
Kris Polly: Please describe your water delivery system and its history.
Jeremy Sorensen: All our water originates in the headwaters of the Strawberry River, which then goes into the Green River, which flows into the Colorado. All the water that we bring across is considered Colorado River drainage. SWUA relies on Strawberry Reservoir for storage of those waters.
The Strawberry Valley Project was built in the early 1900s. Project builders drilled a tunnel through the Wasatch Front from both directions. Those men were working by candlelight and with horses, but by coming from both sides, they were able to drill the tunnel and only missed by about 6 inches.
Prior to 1991, SWUA maintained and operated Strawberry Reservoir, collecting both grazing and recreation fees to cover operational costs. This was great for our water users; SWUA was able to charge a minimal assessment to our water users because the fees around the reservoir covered our costs.
After 1991, the Central Utah Project (CUP) brought additional Colorado River water into the reservoir. CUP took a 260,000-acre-foot reservoir and increased it to 1 million acrefeet, guaranteeing SWUA 61,000 acre-feet every year. The relationship has benefitted our shareholders. It has provided SWUA with certainty and created storage space for CUP, which now operates the reservoir.
Interestingly, after SWUA signed the agreement, CUP built a new tunnel—again digging from each direction—and they were off by more than 60 feet.
Kris Polly: SWUA is seeking title transfer of parts of the Strawberry Valley Project. What elements of the project are you seeking to gain title to?
Jeremy Sorensen: We are seeking the title to power plants and our main canal, and we are also looking at trying to get the water rights.
We see a lot of the issues with the actual water rights, so we are just trying to ensure that the federal government no longer has a say in what we can and cannot do. We have had so many problems with the federal government— with someone else in charge and a whole new set of rules that we cannot live up to—because we already have a precedent. We are then told that we have been doing things illegally, even though they have been aware of everything going on. It is difficult to do business with an organization that works that way.
Kris Polly: Do the problems that you are referring to relate to some of the water that has gone to small-acreage irrigators?
Jeremy Sorensen: Yes. Several years ago, Reclamation issued a footnote to a directive indicating that contractors can deliver to smallacreage irrigators. Yet, the federal government continued to tell us that we could not deliver to any small lots. One of our shareholders, a local city, sued us. The city’s residents had relied on this water for nearly 70 years, and we were required to give it to them. There we were, with shareholders who own the water that SWUA could not deliver because the federal government would not allow us. Fortunately, we were able to work through it.
Being the first water project in Utah, everything was a learning process. The way they set it up 100 years ago does not work as well today because of the encroachment of urbanization. We need to adapt.
Kris Polly: Has there been a solution to this issue?
Jeremy Sorensen: Reclamation grandfathered us in so that we can deliver to small lots. The water has to be tied to the ground, and the city does not own the ground; the homeowner does. Reclamation created the water dedication agreement, which allows the water to be tied to the ground inside the city limits, but the city becomes a subdelivery agent. We bill the city, the city bills the shareholders through their monthly billing, and the city is then able to deliver the water to the user.
Title transfer will help with this contracting process. Our other growing cities have a good grasp of state law, but they struggled to work under Reclamation law.
Kris Polly: What other benefits do you think title transfer will bring to your shareholders?
Jeremy Sorensen: We will cut out the middleman on a variety of projects. For example, in one pipe replacement project, SWUA had engineered a pipe replacement and had it ready to go. We went to Reclamation to inform it of the project, but we were told that our plans had to be reviewed first. That process took some time. Without the pipe in place, one of our power plants remained idle. After 3 months, the Technical Center told us to get it engineered and have our local bureau take care of it, which we had already done. They finally allowed us to put it in the ground. We spent 3 months waiting and losing money.
Kris Polly: Where are you in the process right now with title transfer?
Jeremy Sorensen: We are still working on getting all the stakeholders on the same page. When we first decided that we wanted title transfer, a local mayor told me that SWUA only wanted water rights in order to sell to Las Vegas. Of course, that is not possible. The state would not let me do that, and I personally did not own the water; the shareholders, such as the mayor himself, did. However, just one person saying this created a fear that we may do that.
Kris Polly: What do you hope to see on the Colorado River to help ensure that your supplies are sustained over the next 100 years?
Jeremy Sorensen: What we hear is that if Lake Powell cannot supply the needs of Colorado River water users, upstream supplies will be tapped, starting with Flaming Gorge, and we fear it will move on to Strawberry Reservoir. Water releases will affect all of our water here. We are constantly watching that situation.
Kris Polly: What are some of the other challenges that you are dealing with right now?
Jeremy Sorensen: Like everyone else, aging infrastructure and communication issues are our two biggest challenges. Communication is the key that everyone needs to work on more. The rumor mill circulates, and one person with influence can spread a lie. We are trying to get accurate information out there and be as proactive as we can.
I have started attending council meetings to discuss what SWUA is doing. The more proactive we can be, the better off it will be for the future. We can work on those relationships so that when those off-the-wall stories come out, I can put a rumor to rest.
Kris Polly: In addition to council meetings, do you have other educational components to what you are doing so that people in the area have a better sense of how they get their water?
Jeremy Sorensen: In conjunction with the Provo River Water Users Association and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, we work with the local farm bureau. Each year, they have a Farm Field Day, during which they bring 3,000 second graders to a farm. We have created a model mountain where we explain the water cycle. We have dams and pipes that show how we divert the water to different areas. We can make calls, and I have a sprayer to show the rain. It is fun to watch kids realize the purpose of the reservoirs.
This education is much needed. I had someone call me the other day; he was upset because he had a family reunion by a reservoir up Payson Canyon. Because of the drought, the canyon reservoir has dried up to become a large mud puddle. He told me that I had ruined his reunion because I drained his reservoir (even though I don’t regulate that reservoir). The public perception is that reservoirs are for recreation and fishing, when in reality, they are for drinking, irrigation, and other water usage.
Kris Polly: What is the most important thing you have learned as an irrigation district manager?
Jeremy Sorensen: The most important thing I have learned is communication. Don’t assume anything. If you hear something verify it before making any decisions. Keep everyone involved as up to date as possible. I am not saying I am perfect at this but have found the more I talk to others the less questions we have about what we are doing.