ST. GEORGE — A paved trail meanders alongside the Virgin River — a favorite of rafters, home to rare fish and a water source for St. George residents. In Iron County, a similar trail follows Coal Creek, leading into the mouth of Cedar Canyon where the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin Desert meet.

Coal Creek flows under a dusting of snow in this file photo, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 30, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

If passed, a new bill in the Utah State House would recognize Southern Utah and statewide communities that work toward improving local rivers and streams, said its sponsor, House Rep. Gay Bennion.

She said HB 243 originally had language requiring local governments to include a “vision” in their general land use plans for riparian areas — the land surrounding water bodies like rivers and seasonal streams.

But Bennion told St. George News a new substitute bill is being drafted in the 2024 Legislature to make participation voluntary while creating a recognition program tentatively called Healthy Water Ways.

Participating governments, including those that create a plan for their streams and rivers, will receive an award, Bennion said. The details have not yet been published.

L-R: Watershed Program Director Tyler Thompson Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion address the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee in this file photo, Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 31, 2022 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

“The benefits to do the work are still there for these communities of less flooding, improved enjoyment of these rivers and streams, and hopefully cleaner rivers and streams,” she said.

The change was prompted by feedback from some of the bill’s stakeholders regarding various concerns.

For instance, there “is some concern that the proposed riparian standards could restrict potential development opportunities for existing landowners,” Karry Rathje wrote in an email to St. George News. Rathje is the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s communications and government affairs manager.

“As of right now, the state’s water conservancy districts are monitoring HB 243,” she wrote before the revision was announced. “The interim committee is working through this concern and the water conservancy districts are waiting to see if/how the bill may change.”

In this file photo, the Virgin River flows near Sheep Bridge, Virgin, Utah, Jan. 10, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Bennion said that “every city has to go through the process of listening to property owners as they create that vision.”

Still, Rathje said the Washington County Water Conservancy District appreciated Bennion discussing the bill with stakeholders.

“We’re fortunate to have legislators who thoughtfully consider and seek to improve our environmental conditions,” she wrote. “The district supports the protection of riparian areas and funds these efforts locally via our partnership with the Virgin River Program.”

Bennion said much of the language will remain the same, including items that county and city ordinances could address. According to the bill, these include:

Erosion and sedimentation management and flood control
Reducing water pollution
Protecting fish and wildlife habitat
Preserving aesthetic and recreational values

This file photo, shows an aerial view of flood damage at Southgate Golf Club, St. George, Utah, March 16, 2023 | Photo provided by Colby Cowan, St. George News

“This will help our cities and counties take ownership and help clean (riparian areas) up and do the planning to ensure that there’s less flooding and greater benefits,” Bennion said.

The program would be administered by the Utah Department of Natural Resources and would fund an additional full-time employee with “technical expertise to help cities and counties,” Bennion said.

According to the current fiscal note, the legislation could result in a one-time cost to the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands of $26,700 in 2024, with $160,000 in ongoing costs to hire the new employee.

The Utah Geological Survey could see a one-time cost of $15,000 in 2025 for an individual to compile a statewide map of riparian areas, the fiscal note states. And the bill could cost the Utah Division of Water Resources a one-time amount of $2,000 in 2025 to have a person compile resources to help local governments manage riparian areas.

This file photo shows the waterfall near Coal Creek Trail, Cedar Canyon, Utah, April 9, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

Cities and counties that have not started riparian-related work could see an average of $15,000 in increased costs, depending on the community’s size and the extent of the work planned, according to the fiscal note.

Cities across the state have already begun work to mitigate flood risk, build trails and clean up rivers, Bennion said.

“In Ogden, they pulled nine cars out of the river, and like 9 tons of garbage and they started their work in 2009,” she said. “So it’s not going to be an overnight thing, but this is the start of our cities and our counties having a vision for our riparian areas and making them a lovely benefit.”

In Cedar City, it’s “always been a high priority to preserve the waterways and the riparian areas,” City Engineer Jonathan Stathis told St. George News. Much of what the bill originally required was already in the works locally, including flood mitigation projects and recreation planning near streams and channels.

This file photo shows Coal Creek Trail covered in snow in Cedar Canyon Nature Park, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 30, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, Cedar City News

For instance, the Coal Creek trail runs through East Canyon Park and into Cedar Canyon, following Coal Creek.

“I personally love Canyon Park — it’s just so beautiful, and it’s an area where everyone likes to go and just enjoy nature and the beauty,” he said.

Additionally, Coal Creek trail is one of the city’s most heavily used paths, Cedar City Councilmember R. Scott Phillips added.

“It’s one of our more popular trails,” he said. “And I think it’s because of the vegetation. I think it’s because of the setting.”

Why protect riparian areas?

Bennion’s sponsorship of the bill was prompted by a constituent. Dr. Jennifer Follstad Shah guided a group of University of Utah students as they created the Riparian Ordinance Toolkit last Spring to help cities develop ordinances related to riparian areas, according to the Jordan River Commission.

In this file photo, Pine Valley Reservoir reflects nearby mountains, Pine Valley Recreation Area, Utah, Oct. 19, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“We met at a Great Salt Lake Symposium, and she asked if we could sit down and talk about riparian areas. … I can see what it will mean to our state as we’re growing so rapidly,” Bennion said. “If we can have our cities and counties have a vision and have stewardship for the riparian areas in their (boundaries) and work across boundaries … with their neighboring cities and counties to have the best outcomes for these natural rivers and streams.”

While riparian areas account for less than 1% of Utah’s land, approximately 82% of bird species and other wildlife depend on these ecosystems, according to Salt Lake County’s website.

“A stream is a complex living system where the physical characteristics of the stream bed and the valley it’s contained within — including its shape, elevation drop, and soil types — interact with dissolved nutrients and organic matter in the water to create an environment rich with life,” the site reads.

“Understanding and respecting streams as dynamic ecosystems will go a long way towards protecting water quality and stream health. In fact, streams do a better job of protecting us and our property during flood events when they’re healthy,” County staff continue.

In this file photo, a roadrunner wanders near the Virgin River, St. George, Utah, July 13, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The Utah Division of Water Quality reviewed 916 “assessment units,” over 15,000 miles of perennial rivers, streams and canals, and 1.5 million acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds, with data covering 2014-2020, according to the 2022 Integrated Report on Water Quality.

Of 774 assessed units of rivers, streams and canals, the division found that 40% did not support their designated beneficial uses, which could include drinking, recreation, agriculture, or as habitat for aquatic life. Approximately 52% of perennial stream miles did not support one or more of their intended uses.

Of 142 units of lakes, reservoirs and ponds assessed, 43% were impaired, accounting for 10% of lake acres. The discrepancy is likely due to the Great Salt Lake accounting for a majority of the assessed acreage, the report states.

A majority of the impairments found were linked to dissolved oxygen, temperature and pH — how acidic or basic the water is. The most common unsupported use in affected areas was habitat for aquatic life.

As of Jan. 30, the bill has been sent to the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, and has not yet received a public hearing or vote.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2024 Utah Legislature by clicking here.

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