Another Bear River water acquisition could put Great Salt Lake further at risk

Wednesday , April 04, 2018 - 5:33 PM3 comments

The states of Utah and Idaho are seeking early season runoff water that would otherwise flow down Bear River to the Great Salt Lake.

The Division of Water Resources filed an application on March 23 with the Division of Water Rights to jointly claim, along with the state of Idaho, rights to up to 400,000 acre-feet of water.

Right now, as much as the top four feet of Bear Lake is reserved for flood control storage. Over winter, that water gets released from the lake to Bear River before irrigation season begins to prevent liability flooding once the snow melts in spring, according to Eric Millis, director of the Division of Water Resources. 

“There’s been talk amongst parties that if we could do things to minimize flood damage downstream that flood control pool on Bear Lake could be reduced,” Millis said Wednesday. 

The division also said it doesn’t plan to build any new dams or diversions to store the water. But that doesn’t mean the project will be cheap.

To reduce the need for flood control releases at Bear Lake, the states will need to reduce the potential for flooding damage. That means purchasing flood easements from landowners downstream.

Millis said Idaho regulators are mostly considering how to get private land easements to mitigate flooding. Utah could consider that option as well, or the option of helping Idaho pay for them.

“We haven’t even gotten to the point of talking through exactly how we’ll affect these kinds of things,” he said. “There are lots of talks that need to go on before anything happens with this.”

Water Resources often touts water conservation as a Utah ethic, but gaining access to that released Bear Lake water would cushion Utahns and Idahoans from the effects of dry years.

“Talking to irrigators along Bear River, 1 in 5 to 1 in 7 years they have a shortage of supply. This could help meet the need there,” Millis said, explaining the extra 400,000 acre-feet could be used to supplement existing users’ water rights to irrigation, municipal, recreation and environmental water.

If approved, the water will go to municipal providers in Cache, Box Elder, Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties in Utah as well as Bear Lake, Caribou, Oneida and Franklin counties in Idaho.

Shoring up that water could possibly come at the expense of the Great Salt Lake.

“It is water that would’ve gone to Great Salt Lake, that’s true,” Millis said.

He added regulators could choose to send their supplemental water downstream to benefit the lake. They’ll need to develop models to understand the full impacts. 

“I think in the discussion we have to have, we’d be looking at what are we doing to and for Great Salt Lake in all of this,” Millis said.

The application is separate from and unrelated to the Bear River Water Development Project, which has already secured 220,000 acre-feet to dam and divert at some point in the future.

RELATED: Secondary water metering could push back Bear River dam project

That project alone is expected to drop the Great Salt Lake’s elevation by 8.5 inches and expose 30 square miles of lakebed.

(More information on exposed lakebed: Great Salt Lake dust model spells trouble for Utah if more water is diverted.)

The acquisition could, however, give Bear Lake a boost. 

Bear Lake is a natural mountain lake that straddles the Utah-Idaho border. In 1916, it was developed and essentially converted to a reservoir. Both states use it to store Bear River water. That water is depleted for irrigation and to generate hydropower. 

Keeping the flood control water in Bear Lake could benefit native fish and recreation because it would keep the elevation higher year-round, according to Claudia Cottle with Bear Lake Watch.

If approved by Utah State Engineer Kent Jones and the State of Idaho, the two states will later decided how to divvy up the appropriated waters, but it’s unlikely the full 400,000 acre-feet will end up stored.

Only 75,000 to 80,000 acre feet would be stored at a time, according to a spokesman with the Utah Division of Water Resources.

“There’s always the concern that then they look for more uses also,” Cottle said. “That will be part of our job, that they don’t just find more (reasons) to take water out.”

Zach Frankel with Utah Rivers Council expressed frustration with the division’s perceived duplicity of sending out pro-conservation messages while also pursuing costly water acquisition and diversion projects.

“I’d say they’ve done greenwashing about water conservation — it’s not a concept, it’s an activitiy. They haven’t put money where their mouth is,” he said. “Fund secondary water meters. Phase out property taxes for water. Make government institutions pay their fair share of water. It’s April and I can drive down street and find people with their sprinklers on.”

Although the Division of Water Resources applied for the water on March 23, they didn’t notify the public until Tuesday afternoon. 

“You know, we should’ve realized how big of a deal people would think it’s going to be,” Millis said. 

State Engineer Kent Jones has yet to officially open the public protest period, which lasts 20 days, but he said he anticipates his office will spend several months working with the state of Idaho and deliberating over the application. He said he’ll accept any comments on the acquistion — for or against — during that time. 

“It’s going to be a fairly lengthy process on this, but if anyone wants to comment on it, we’d certainly entertain those comments,” Jones said.

The public can send their comments via email to waterrights@utah.gov or via mail to Utah Division of Water Rights, 1594 West North Temple Suite 220, P.O. Box 146300, Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-6300. All comments and protests should reference Water Right 23-3972.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.  

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