By Linda Faas
Gold Butte National Monument was not mentioned as President Donald Trump removed millions of acres from two massive national monuments during his visit to Utah on Monday, Dec. 4. With lavish praises for the wisdom and ability of the people of Utah to steward their public lands, Trump signed proclamations reducing the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Both monuments have been the subject of vigorous public opposition since their designations, in part because they encompassed 1.35 million and 1.7 million acres respectively.
Gold Butte was declared a national monument by President Obama in December 2016, after years of efforts by various groups to gain some form of federal protection for the unique cultural, biological, and geological features of the area bordered by the Virgin Mountains on the north, Arizona state line on the east, Virgin River on the west, and Colorado River on the south. As designated, Gold Butte National Monument comprises an area of nearly 297,000 acres of public land, managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Governance of Gold Butte area has been hotly contested for years. While people speak of the wonderous qualities of Gold Butte and agree it is a place that must be preserved for future generations, the proclamation of the national monument raised serious questions of access to water rights for both the Virgin Valley Water District (VVWD) and the City of Mesquite.
By recent estimate, the Virgin Valley population will outgrow its groundwater supply in about 20 years and will need to tap new water sources to meet the needs of the area. Virgin Valley Water District, responsible for supplying Mesquite and Bunkerville with water, has rights to 2,200 acre feet of water per year in the form of springs on the Virgin Mountains. VVWD also owns groundwater rights and river water shares, but those springs are water sources marked for Mesquite’s expanded population in the future. The 2016 boundary line drawn for the monument enclosed five of the six springs that comprise VVWD water rights.
VVWD had provided very specific verbiage to Senator Reid’s office that was expected to be included in any federal law or proclamation concerning the area, and worked in cooperation with those crafting designations so that the valley would be assured access to those future water sources. The final monument proclamation, however, included different verbiage that allowed varying interpretation. Thus, when public comment was sought on the new monument, VVWD requested that the monument boundary be moved south of the Virgin Mountain ridgeline to exclude the valley water sources. (See map)
President Trump directed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review over 20 national monuments early in 2017, citing federal overreach in the formation of some national monuments designated by earlier presidents. National monuments have been formed by presidential decree since the early 1900s. The Antiquities Act of 1906 was passed by Congress to allow the president to set aside areas of special cultural, biological, geological interest to be protected. The original stated intent was to designate “the smallest area compatible and management of the objects to be protected.” The act has been the basis of formation of almost 200 national monuments of varying size and purpose. Later presidents have amended monument boundaries 18 times.
Zinke agreed with VVWD’s request for access to its water rights, and in his summary report to Trump, he recommended that Gold Butte be one of nine national monuments placed under consideration for change.
Subsequently, Trump, invoking the 1906 Antiquities Act, changed the boundaries of Utah’s monuments. The announced change of Utah monuments cannot be construed as probable presidential action in regard to Gold Butte National Monument.
Zinke didn’t suggest changes to 17 other US monuments including Basin and Range in southeastern Nevada.