A group of private investors says there could be unknown sources of water right under their noses that could satisfy Salt Lake County's thirst for decades.
"There is a lot of water that goes to waste in the Great Salt Lake," said Michael Gottfredson, a principal in Western Water, a company seeking rights to the asserted water.
Western Water, whose other principals are Harvey Hutchinson and Ronald Christensen, will try to make its case to the state engineer that huge amounts of water flow needlessly down the Jordan River and various canals.
In a scheme that has attracted a flotilla of high-powered opposition, the company has proposed capturing the allegedly wasted water at a variety of points in Utah and Salt Lake counties and diverting it to Cedar Valley, about 30 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.
At Cedar Valley, the water would be injected or seeped into a natural underground aquifer for storage. It would then be tapped later and sold to municipal water agencies and communities in northern Utah County and southern Salt Lake County.
The proposal estimates about 90,000 acre-feet could be stored each year. (One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or the amount an average family with a yard consumes in a year.)
For comparison, Salt Lake County residents and farmers use about 600,000 acre-feet of water each year. The county's largest water agency, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, delivers about 85,000 acre-feet of drinking water each year.
While the plan to provide a major quantity of water to Salt Lake County may sound like good news to Utah's fast-growing, water-challenged metropolis, supporters are hard to find.
To the contrary, all of Salt Lake County's major water districts -- along with many cities, state agencies, irrigation companies, duck clubs, corporations and conservation groups -- have filed protests of Western Water's applications for new water rights, saying the claims infringe on existing water rights.
"We're going to resist it very vigorously," said Jordan Valley General Manager David Ovard. "If [Western Water principals] prevail, they would be enriched at the expense of the public."
The capital costs of the Western Water plan are expected to range between $60 million and $90 million and would be financed by Western Water's principals, Pasadena, Calif.-based consulting firm Tetra Tech and yet-to-be-procured investors, Gottfredson said. Depending on the volume and price of water, the plan could be lucrative, returning $20 million to $30 million a year.
In all, about 85 individuals or entities have filed 196 protests against the Western Water plan that would be the largest privatization of water in Utah history.
"It's somewhat uncommon to have that many protests," said Kent Jones, deputy state engineer. "It's more than a typical water-right hearing."
The opposition revolves around one main argument: The Utah Lake/Jordan River Basin is tapped out.
"The state engineer continues to say that all the water in the Jordan River and Utah Lake drainage is fully appropriated. Somebody is using it all," said Jim Riley, regional state engineer.
Still, Jones and Riley said Western Water, which has teamed up with Tetra Tech, will be given a fair chance to make its case for unappropriated water.
However, should the state determine there is water available Western Water would not be the first in line to get it.
Many of those protesting Western Water's scheme have had applications for water rights in the Jordan River for years, Jones said.
Among them is Jordan Valley, which has applied for 30,000 acre-feet of shallow groundwater near the river.
David Hartvigen, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents several water-rights holders opposed to Western Water's plan, said a water project such as this belongs in the public realm, not with a private group.
Environmental groups and some government agencies are opposed to Western Water's plan out of fear it will dry up wetlands along the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake.
"Fundamentally, I don't believe that water is there without great harm to the environment," said Jeff Niermeyer, deputy director of the Salt Lake City Public Utilities Department.
"All along the Jordan River, you would dewater the wetlands."
Gottfredson said the plan would result in a net loss of just 30,000 acre-feet a year to the Great Salt Lake -- less than 1 percent of the 370,000 acre-feet of water that flows each year into the inland sea and its marshes from the Jordan River.
Although opposed to Western Water's plan, one environmental group is sympathetic to the company's claim that there is a surplus of water in Salt Lake County.
The Utah Rivers Council has made that claim for several years as part of its campaign against a plan by state and local water agencies to dam the Bear River, 50 miles to the north, and pipe it to Salt Lake County.
Zach Frankel, Utah Rivers director, says at least 100,000 acre-feet of irrigation water is no longer being used and could be appropriated for municipal use, negating the need for a Bear River project.
"What we need is a full analysis of what to do with that water," he said.