Free camping at Kolob Reservoir to end as water district moves to fee-based reservation system

Kolob community resident Doug Heideman, who helped organize the community in approaching the Washington County Water Conservancy District about issues related to the mass-visitation to the area, shows a spot on the map of Kolob Reservoir where problems with trespassing campers have arisen for property owners in the area, St. George, Utah, April 8, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The age of free camping at Kolob Reservoir is coming to an end as the Washington County Water Conservancy District moves to implement a more regulated and fee-based camping system at the urging of area residents and property owners.

Washington County Water Conservancy District General Manager Zach Renstrom speaks to concerned property owners from the Kolob community, St. George, Utah, April 8, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“It’s kind of always been open up there,” Zach Renstrom, general manager of the county water district, told St. George News on Wednesday. The water district owns property around parts of Kolob Reservoir where people have been allowed to camp for free. That leniency on the part of the water district was taken advantage of by an “astronomical amount” of visitors last summer, Renstrom said.

Like other water-based attractions across Washington County that received a flood of visitors during 2020, Kolob was no different.

While the district “thinks it’s great people are using the lake,” Renstrom said, the mass visitation has also created “a health and safety issue.”

Items that have that arisen in the wake of increased visitation involve repeated instances of trespassing as people set up campsites on private property around the reservoir, incidents of harassment and vandalism against property owners, increased garbage and human waste left in the visitors’ wake and other issues that led to area residents approaching the water district for help last summer.

Resident and property owner concerns

Members of the Kolob community met with Washington County and water district officials in St. George on Thursday afternoon to further discuss the mass influx of visitors and the subsequent issues.

Members of the Kolob community meet with Washington County and water district officials concerning issues raised by mass visitation to Kolob Reservoir, St. George, Utah, April 8, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“I’m tired of picking up other people’s garbage,” one women said in the meeting, noting that trash receptacles for visitors were few and far away from some of the camping areas. The same was said about public restroom facilities at the reservoir, which created issues of human waste.

One property owner went along a fence they had marking their property line and found numerous cases of human waste there, which they reported to the county, Washington County Commission Victor Iverson said.

There have been other cases involving property owners having to chase away trespassers who set up camp on their land, which can sometimes be met with belligerent and even threatening responses.

“We had one group of 50-60 people (trespassing on private land). The landowner came over and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and a guy said, ‘We’re having a family reunion here,’” Doug Heideman, who was at Thursday’s meeting, told St. George News, adding the property owner then had a gun pulled on him and he was told to leave, which he did.

By the time deputies from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office arrived, the group had left the area.

“That’s one story,” Heideman said. “There are multiple stories like it.”

Other concerns are related to visitors blocking narrows roads around the reservoir with their own vehicles or campsites, as well as a disregard for the campfire ban currently in place due to extreme fire dangers.

Water district concerns

Kolob Reservoir holds water that is typically released downstream to help fill the Sand Hollow and Quail Creek reservoirs at the end of summer, Renstrom said.

In this file photo, a family enjoys recreation on the eastern shore of Kolob Reservoir, Kolob Plateau, Utah, June 19, 2018 | File photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Among Renstrom’s worries caused by the increased visitation is a potential infestation of invasive quagga mussels brought by someone who hadn’t properly cleaned their boat. However, part of new regulations being put in place by the water district may include a limit of the size of motor that will be allowed in the water. This, Renstrom said, would help keep away potential quagga mussel-transporting watercraft.

Wild fires are also a worry due to the leftover ash and debris that can be swept into the water and render it unusable.

Beyond that, Renstrom held many of the same concerns area residents did and was working with the county and state to find ways to mitigate the problems.

Plan moving forward

The state parks don’t have the issues Kolob does because they have the manpower, facilities and policy in place to deal with the applicable problems, Renstrom said, adding the water district hasn’t had that in place for Kolob. That will change soon.

Among the changes being rolled out for the Kolob Reservoir is a camping-through-reservation-only system where perspective campers can reserve a campsite online for a nominal fee, Renstrom said.

The exact fees have not been decided on yet, but will be used to pay for the installation and upkeep of needed camping infrastructure.

So far, the water district is considering designating between 40-45 official campsites.

Kolob Reservoir in Washington County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

Upon the recommendation of Utah State Parks, volunteer “camp hosts” will patrol the campsites, looking for any issues, such as lighting up a campfire. The camp hosts will have no authority beyond asking visitors to abide by campsite rules. For issues of enforcement, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office will have an increased and visible presence around the reservoir through its deputies.

Additional signage detailing the ban on campfires and camping regulations will be added around the reservoir.

Signs at the beginning of the roads leading to Kolob in Washington and Iron counties will also be posted with information for travelers noting the new reservation-only system.

Area property owners were encouraged to put up more private property signs as well.

For now, the new camping system is still being finalized, though Renstrom said he expects it to be working by summer. Ultimately, the goal is to create a camping master plan for the area and get Washington County to take over management of the campsite, he said.

As for fire issues, Renstrom added that he was in “very preliminary” discussions with the Hurricane Valley Fire District about the possibility of building a fire station in or near the Kolob community.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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