There’s been a running debate for about a decade over a proposed dam in the Oneida Narrows in Southern Idaho, and this is not likely to be the last time people deliberate over development on the Bear River.
The Bear River Basin is seen as one of the last, lucrative water sources for Utah as it seeks for ways to provide water for an increasing population with agricultural, municipal and industrial needs. Its 7,600-square-mile watershed spans three states and is the largest stream in the western hemisphere not emptying into the ocean; instead, it empties in the Great Salt Lake with an average annual inflow of almost 1.2 million acre-feet each year.
It is home to a variety of birds, fish and other wildlife. John C. Fremont, a 19th Century explorer, described the lush vegetation and fertile soil of the watershed, and his descriptions attracted settlers to the West.
With development over the years, there aren’t many rivers left that are “natural,” explained Jack Schmidt, a Utah State University watershed sciences professor. The future of the Bear is still in the balance as people figure out how to best use its water.
“I guess you can say, in the state of Utah, some of our rivers are completely transformed, and other rivers seem partly natural,” Schmidt said. “And the Bear River is one of those rivers that can go either way, and that is the decision before us.”
As Twin Lakes Canal Company moves forward with its federal license application to dam the mouth of the Narrows, a recreation destination 40 miles north of Logan, Utahns are gearing up for another discussion on development in the Bear that will affect Cache County.
There are a number of developments on the river already. By and large, the water in these reservoirs is used for irrigation, flood control and hydropower generation. The “best spots,” arguably, were taken up 50 to 100 years ago, when a dam building boom was sweeping the country.
But with a population due to nearly double by 2050, Utah will need another resource for water by 2035 or 2040, and the Bear River looks to be the answer, explained Marisa Egbert, an engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resources. The state intends to build two or three dams and reservoirs on the Bear over the next 20 to 30 years.
“It is a very expensive project, and all the entities in the state (are) looking at other ways to develop water for this, and eventually this will be needed until we stop population growth,” Egbert said. “It’ll all be needed eventually.”
Agriculture and electricity
While the state plans to use the water for mainly nonagricultural uses, the dams and reservoirs already on the watershed have first priority for irrigation and flood control. Some have hydro-generating power; many were built by power companies seeking to capitalize on the natural resource.
Not every dam and power generation facility is deemed as valuable as it might have been when built, though. Dave Eskelsen, spokesman for western utility PacifiCorp, explained that the company has removed several dams over the years. During the relicensing process for the company’s Bear River project, for example, the company decided to remove the 7.5 megawatt Cove hydro facility in 2006. Cove was a relatively small companion project to the Grace power plant, which is the largest generating unit on the Bear River system, he explained. The water from the Grace plant flowed two miles downstream in an open conduit and through a second generator, Cove, and then was released back into the river.
The age and deterioration of the flow line, as well as “environmental sensibility” deemed the project not viable enough to keep running, Eskelsen explained.
But, other projects are considered necessary to continue. In fall 2013 and fall 2014, for example, PacifiCorp did extensive repair to the Cutler dam in Box Elder County.
To Eskelsen, there’s still a significant need for dams and their reservoirs in the Bear River watershed.
“They’ve performed very well, for decades, very important functions for the whole river drainage system and the three states involved in the Bear River Compact (Utah, Idaho and Wyoming),” he said. “And the ability to manage spring runoff and lessen flooding when larger runoff seasons occur, and also provide for the agricultural benefits of farming, especially Utah and Idaho. Those benefits are huge.”
Egbert, of the Division of Water Resources (DWR), said the water in the new reservoirs will be mainly used for needs other than agriculture, and not hydropower — there wouldn’t be enough elevation at these sites to generate power.
It’s not a new proposal. The state legislature passed the Bear River Development Act in 1991, which directs the DWR to develop the Bear and its tributaries. In total, 220,000 acre-feet of water was allocated annually among the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, Bear River Water Conservancy District and Cache County.
To put the “acre-feet” numbers in perspective, Egbert explained, one household uses about 1 acre-foot of water a year.
In recent months, the state has released its short list of possible reservoir sites on the Bear River and its tributaries, and is now studying them to calculate the pros and cons of using them for water storage, Egbert explained. Three are in Cache County: The Cub River west of Richmond, Temple Fork in Logan Canyon and above Cutler Reservoir near Newton. The other four sites are in Box Elder County: The Washakie area near Portage, White’s Valley near Tremonton, the area adjacent to and north of Willard Bay, and Fielding.
No one can say at this point whether Cache County will get one of the reservoirs, but it seems likely.
“It would be a practical thing, because we would have to find a way to get it (the water) back to Cache County (otherwise),” Egbert said.
The state’s plan is not without opposition. The Utah Rivers Council has opposed the development since the ’90s. In its latest newsletter, the Council warned that diverting the Bear through a series of dams and pipelines would reduce the Great Salt Lake’s elevation by 2 to 4 feet, reducing shoreline and wetland habitat for some 250 species of birds.
The Utah Rivers Council points out that Utahns have a long way to go in conserving water, and that is the alternative to damming the Bear.
The state has been urging conservation, particularly through its “Slow the flow” campaign, Egbert said. And, it’s worked enough that the need for the Bear River development is being delayed. But eventually, the state won’t be able to conserve its way out of needing more water.
“We’re aware that people don’t want reservoirs,” she said. “We believe there are things that can be done other than just reservoirs, but for this size of the project … unfortunately we don’t see that we can conserve our way out of this problem.”
Cache County’s concerns
Cache County officials want to ensure that the county gets a fair deal as plans move forward on the Bear River development project. The county will press on with its quest to create a water conservancy district this year and maybe have a public vote on it by 2016, explained Bob Fotheringham, the county water manager.
The county is “at a big crossroads” right now because the Legislature is moving forward on how to fund the nearly $2 billion development, Fotheringham explained. The development will be done in phases as the Wasatch Front needs water, and the county wants to make sure it isn’t left out. To him, this is best done through a water conservancy district.
“The closer we get to funding the project, the more we need to be able to act like a conservancy district,” he said. “We need to write contracts, we need to make contacts with people who may want the water, those kinds of things. Those aren’t functions the state says a county can do. We can try to do it as a county, but I don’t really know that the county’s set up to do that.”
A conservancy district has long been on the minds of Cache County, and it’s been shot down by residents due to concerns over taxation without representation, Fotheringham said. A district could levy taxes, but district board members didn’t have to be elected officials. Now, he thinks residents might be more amenable to a district because of change in state law saying elected officials have to serve on the district board in order to levy taxes.
Fotheringham sees Cache County in the same position as Duchesne County in the 1960s, when seven-county Central Utah Water Project diverted hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water to the Wasatch Front. The Deseret News recently reported that Duchesne hired a Denver law firm because it claims the state did not live up to agreements it made in exchange for the county signing on to the formation of the Central Utah water district. Such agreements would have funded other water projects for the benefit of Duchesne.
Having a water conservancy district would enable Cache County to sign legal contracts, not just agreements, to protect its interests as the Bear River is developed, Fotheringham said.
“In 50 years, we might be like Duchesne County, having a district and not being able to manage any water, because what they were supposed to be able to manage was supposed to come in the final phase of the (Central Utah Water) Project, in its final units,” Fotheringham said. “And Central Utah is not funded for its final units.”