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The Water Buffalo
If Noel is considered an effective legislator by his constituency (he's run unopposed in three of the seven elections he's faced—and, in the other four, he pounded his opponents, never receiving less than 70 percent of the vote), he's been even more effective at finding water.
Since he took the reins of the water district, Noel has overseen the installation of a series of water tanks that store 5 million gallons, 100 miles of pipelines and a number of new wells, bored into aquifers entombed within Navajo sandstone.
These projects, Noel maintains, have brought water-quality standards in Kane County's rural areas into federal compliance, while increasing reliability and providing an avenue for the area's businesses and population to grow. Near Alton, an area north of Kanab, the water district now serves 10,000 lots, Noel says.
All told, the district's assets hover around $166 million.
As severe drought grips the West, Noel has placed Kane County, his water district and Kanab on a trajectory of growth. While much of Noel's water work is hidden underground, his most recent, and perhaps most ambitious project, Jackson Flat Reservoir, shimmers on the horizon south of Kanab.
Noel is proud of the reservoir. As it began to fill with water diverted from Kanab Creek in 2012, Noel had trout planted in its waters. In late April, the local paper, Southern Utah News, published a photo of a fat, healthy rainbow trout caught there.
At capacity, the reservoir, which Noel says cost roughly $12 million and was paid for through a combination of loans and grants from the state and federal governments and water-rate increases, can hold just over 4,228 acre-feet of water, or roughly 1.38 billion gallons. Noel says the water will be used for agriculture and other outdoor uses.
In addition to this new bounty of water, Noel has aggressively lobbied for the Lake Powell Pipeline, which would transport Utah's allotment of Colorado River water 140 miles uphill to St. George. If this multi-billion dollar water project is built (Noel says the state has already dropped $25 million on environmental review), the Kane County Water Conservancy District will receive 4,000 acre-feet of additional water.
This is the point at which Noel's work in the Legislature edges dangerously close to his work as a water manager, which also slams right up against his role as a rancher and a successful hay grower in what is, despite the seeming abundance of water, an arid desert.
But Noel says he's never been asked if his work on Capitol Hill clawing for the Lake Powell pipeline constitutes a conflict of interest. "It's a people's Legislature and everyone up there has something they'll do that will affect them personally," Noel says, explaining that, because he's technically a 1099 contract employee for the water district, he's not subject to the Hatch Act, which prohibits municipal employees from holding partisan political offices, such as state legislator.
As Noel and Kane County officials have fought the Grand Staircase over the years, a seemingly inevitable force has begun to take hold that even Noel can't deny: Tourism is increasing.
On a tour of Kanab in Noel's Honda, which he bought new when he was first elected in 2002 and has accumulated 318,414 miles while traveling on legislative business, Noel points out the plywood skeletons of a new hotel and a pharmacy. A second hotel, he says, will soon break ground.
Noel says tourism is fine and good, but he shrugs off service-industry jobs, which he says are seasonal and don't pay well enough to support families.
Noel's battle cry for state ownership of lands, a mine in the Grand Staircase and more logging has grown stale with some locals, who say Noel could do himself and the area some good if he'd embrace his district's changing identity.
On a Monday night that feels sleepy across the few blocks of downtown Kanab, The Rocking V Cafe on Center Street has a waiting list. Customers sip craft beer and speak to each other in an array of languages. The cafe's owner, Victor Cooper, dashes around, delivering food and calling out to departing customers, "Thanks, y'all, for coming. Have a great evening!"
Cooper moved to town 16 years ago, and like many residents, he says that he, too, wishes Kanab still had only one stoplight. Two stoplights now glow on the main drag.
But Cooper's nostalgic sensibilities run only so deep. And he says Noel, the city of Kanab, and the county should have done more to adapt to a changing economy as it became clear that mines and mills were being changed out for hiking boots and campers.
Noel's fiery rhetoric over the years, Cooper says, has only fanned the flames of constituents who want to hear that someday mining and logging jobs will return, and that the culprit responsible for their woes is the federal government. Politically, Cooper says he understands why Noel does what he does. But for practical purposes, he says Noel could serve his constituents better by moving on.
"Is this really in the best interest when you're giving people false hope about, 'Yeah, well, one day the mill will come back'? It's not coming back. Mining is not coming back as a way of life. It's not. That's just a fact," Cooper says. "Politicians, if they spent more time trying to truly lead and do what's good for everybody rather than just to make themselves seem larger, I think we'd be better off, and that's for every party—Democrats, Republicans, everybody."
Susan Hand is co-owner of the Willow Canyon Outdoor store in Kanab, which sells camping gear, coffee and books. Hand says she opposes the Lake Powell pipeline, and calls Noel's reservoir a "huge evaporative pond."
"I don't think it was something that we really needed," she says.
As the reservoir was being built, an American Indian burial ground was discovered on the site, as were several ancient structures. Noel says $2.5 million has been spent so far on archaeological work, and the tribes were appeased with a nearby conservation easement, where the remains were reburied.
Hand says she took a tour of the site before it was inundated with water, and she feels the handling of the archeological site was "disrespectful."
On her tour of the site, an unsavory experience further soured her opinion of the reservoir. As she looked at the ruins, a backhoe "tore a pit house in half," Hand says. "That left a bad feeling with me for the whole project."
Like Cooper, Hand says she believes that Noel is good at being a politician. And because Mike Noel is so effective at getting work done, she wishes his talents could be used to unite rather than divide.
"What's so disappointing is I think that he is capable of doing so much, and a lot of what he does is create strife and division," Hand says. "Sometimes, I feel like he's throwing gasoline on the flames of dispute."
What Noel, Cooper, Hand, SUWA, hikers, ATV enthusiasts and hunters all have in common is a love for the land.
In his zone in Johnson Canyon, this love seems to saturate Noel's life. And what brings him back to Salt Lake City year after year, he says—the issue that makes him tick—is a steadfast belief that the federal government is not managing his beloved lands as it should.
"It's not any personal aggrandizement for me," Noel says. "It's to make sure that people follow what I think was the intent of the law. I've changed my ideology in terms of who should control and manage it, because I've seen that the feds can't manage it. There's too much going on."
Reconciling his seemingly contradictory love for wide-open spaces with his propensity to advocate for mines, roads and more families and houses in Kanab is a difficult riddle.
I asked Noel what Utah will do to accomodate the onslaught of humans that politicians say will double the state's population by 2060. What then? How do you plan for the next doubling?
Noel, a former LDS bishop, says he believes people should be able to have as many children as they like, so long as they can care for them. But he admits it's a tough question. It's true, he says, that paving roads increases use on those roads. He's seen this in his own canyon. And it's true, he says, that the population is booming—a trend that will shrink the few spacious places that remain.
As Noel leans against the dilapidated ruins of the Johnson Canyon movie set—a patch of land where the television series Gunsmoke was shot, now owned by his children—he mulls it over. A truck loaded with fertilizer tanks—Noel's fertilizer tanks—rumbles past. A tourist from Nevada walks up to the ruins, and Noel gives him the quick historical details. He loves this place—his place—and there appear to be plenty of people in and around Kanab who feel a lot like he does.
Noel refers to them as his constituents. He likes to point out that they're a lot different than constituents in Salt Lake City. And, another thing about Noel is clear: Whether it's a bill on Capitol Hill, a water pipeline or a reservoir, Noel is good at getting what he wants.
And, even when he doesn't get what he wants, Noel and his people have a way of getting the last laugh.
When the Grand Staircase was first designated, Noel says he was at the Paria town site, near Paria Canyon, with a woman from the East Coast. Decades before, the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales was filmed there. Noel says the woman told him that the movie set needed to be ripped down, because it wasn't natural. Noel told her more people came to see the movie set than anything else.
"I'll go to heck if they didn't tear that whole thing down," Noel says. "They built a plastic-fantastic Disneyland set and somebody came in—I don't know who it was, I honestly don't—and burned that sucker down to the ground, because they didn't want it there. They wanted the old movie set there. So it's just stupid stuff like that that doesn't make any sense. Doesn't make any sense at all."