November 06, 2021

State eyes northern Utah valley to store Bear River water

Critics say the reservoir would threaten the Great Salt Lake.

2021 11 05 at 12.13.14 PM

By Brian Maffly | Nov. 1, 2021, 6:00 a.m. | Updated: 9:08 a.m.

Click here to read the full article on the Salt Lake Tribune website.

Outside the northern Utah town of Tremonton, undeveloped lands sit against the West Hills, rolling out toward Idaho. In the coming decades, these hills may also harbor one of Utah’s largest reservoirs, filling a place called Whites Valley with water that would feed urban growth along the Wasatch Front.

Whites Valley is shaping up to be the linchpin of Utah’s massive proposed Bear River Water Development Project, which would store as much as 220,000 acre-feet of water a year for four northern Utah water districts.

Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, highlighted this component of the billion-dollar-plus project earlier this month before a legislative appropriations subcommittee.

The water won’t be needed for decades, but the division is laying the groundwork for planning and acquisition of land and rights of way. When the project was initially authorized by the Legislature in 1991, it was assumed the water would be needed by 2015.

“But because of water conservation efforts, reducing our water use, implementing secondary meters [on untreated water used for landscaping], that need has been pushed off to 2050,” Hasenyager said. “There is definitely a phasing need. The whole complete project is not needed at 2050. That’s when the need starts appearing.”

Environmentalists and other critics contend the project would not only be a fiscal drag on the water districts receiving the water and that it would threaten the Great Salt Lake. These massive water diversions would never be needed if Utah got more aggressive about reducing water use and smarter about managing its water resources, according to Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.

“Bear River Development is a welfare project for water lobbyists and contractors. There is no need for Bear River water on the Wasatch Front. Period,” Frankel said. “We are such wasteful secondary water users. We don’t even have any idea how much water people are using, much less making sure they’re paying appropriately for it.”

The state has only just begun installing meters on the secondary water systems in northern Utah, and officials plan to step up these efforts using federal infrastructure grants. Currently, residents and businesses pay a flat annual rate for secondary water they apply to their landscaping, and most have no idea how much they use. Studies show that Utah residents cut their use of secondary water by 20 to 30% if they are simply informed how much they use.

That suggests water needs would plummet if secondary water were always metered and users were required to pay a rate tied to their level of use, Frankel argued.

The Bear River flows off the north slope of the Uinta Mountains, weaves north in and out of Utah and Wyoming and into Idaho, before making a horseshoe turn back into Utah where it empties into the Great Salt Lake.

Critics say the water project would pound the final nail into the lake’s coffin as it continues shriveling into a puddle of its former self, thanks to climate change and unrelenting diversions in the Provo and Weber watersheds.

The project would impound up to three-fourths of the flows of Bear River, the Great Salt Lake’s primary source of inflows.

“The future of the Great Salt Lake is at stake with Whites Valley and Bear River Development, alongside Utah’s breadbasket of farms and ranches. Each of them have a cascade of impacts to northern Utah that will reverberate across generations,” Frankel said.

Click here to read the rest of this article on the Salt Lake Tribune website.