This is the third (and final) in a series of re-purposed blog posts written in my role as an archivist at the Utah State Archives and Records Service. These posts will illuminate the story of Utah’s role in the larger western movement to try and tame the Colorado River and use its waters for unprecedented development in the arid west.
ENVISIONING THE CENTRAL UTAH PROJECT
Due to circumstances of geology and demographics, the bulk of Utah’s population lives on the eastern edge of the Great Basin, hundreds of miles (and thousands of feet of elevation) removed from the Colorado River water promised to the state by the Colorado River Compact. In 1946 the first scheme for addressing this disconnect was conceived. Modeled on successes by the Bureau of Reclamation in the early 20th century at Utah’s Strawberry Reservoir and nearby Heber Valley, local planners developed the concept of the Central Utah Project (CUP).
According to its proponents, the CUP would guarantee full use of Utah’s allotted share of the Colorado River by implementing a series of aqueducts, diversion and storage dams, and tunnels that would effectively move water from the eastern Colorado River Basin to other areas of the state, including the growing population centers along the Wasatch Front.
The first attempt to create the CUP came in 1946 when federal legislation was proposed by Utah senator, Abe Murdock. This legislation was met with defeat, as it was determined that any attempt at such a massive project in Utah needed to be bound up with larger planning in the Upper Colorado River Basin as a whole. Up to that point, the states of the Upper Basin hadn’t even determined how the Upper Basin allotment would be divided between them. This, in turn, spurred negotiations that would lead to the 1948 Upper Colorado Basin Compact, an agreement that granted Utah 23% of the 7,500,000 acre feet of water apportioned to the Upper Basin by the Colorado River Compact.
In that same year (1948), the Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSPA) was also proposed. This legislative action proposed a comprehensive plan for developing the Upper Colorado River Basin. However, a variety of delay’s prevented the Congress from authorizing it until 1956. Upon its authorization, the Central Utah Project was born, effectively serving as the largest single participating unit in the CRSPA plan.
This early history of the CUP’s origination and initial planning is reflected in records held by the Utah State Archives, which includes correspondence records from the office of Utah Governor J. Bracken Lee (1946-1956), as well as Colorado River Commission case files created by the Utah Attorney General.
In simplest terms, the CUP serves to build the infrastructure needed to impound and transport water from the eastern Utah river basin to other water-starved regions in America’s second most arid state. The organizational apparatus for developing the CUP water delivery systems was born in 1964, with the legal organization of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District (CUWCD). The original seven-member board of the CUWCD was composed of one representative from each county in Utah impacted by CUP projects. This original board included members from the counties of Salt Lake, Summit, Wasatch, Utah, Juab, Uintah, and Duchesne. Later the board would expand to include representation from Garfield, Piute, and Sanpete counties. The CUWCD was established to both oversee the management of water projects associated with the CUP, as well as manage Utah’s repayment of federal funds that had been allocated for CUP projects by the Colorado River Storage Project Act.
The CUWCD set to work by first organizing water development projects around the state into seven distinct geographic units: Vernal, Upalco, Jensen, Bonneville, Uinta, and Ute Indian. Setting project priorities and allocating resources has often proved contentious, particularly as projects went over time and budget throughout the latter 20th century. For example, in 1965 the Bonneville Unit (the single largest unit of the CUP) was allotted $302 million in funds to complete its associated water projects. Construction delays and the passage of time meant that, by 1985, over $2 billion in funds had actually been spent developing the Bonneville Unit.
The early history of work done for the CUP, as well as ongoing debates of how to fund the project appear throughout several record series held by the Utah State Archives. These include Upper Colorado River project files from the office of Governor George D. Clyde (1957-1965), correspondence records from the office of Governor Calvin Rampton (1965-1977), natural resource working files from the office of Utah Governor Scott Matheson (1977-1985), and correspondence records from Governor Matheson’s office.