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Officials open Willard Bay spillway, tout water conservation

650M gallons per day will head to the Great Salt Lake

By Rob Nielsen - | May 11, 2023
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Scott Paxman, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District general manager, center, speaks at the Willard Bay Dike on Thursday, May 11, 2023.
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Water flows through the Willard Bay spillway on its way to the Great Salt Lake on Thursday, May 11, 2023.
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Weber Basin Water Conservancy District workers open the Willard Bay spillway Thursday, May 11, 2023.
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Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

WILLARD — Even as water seems overly plentiful, Utah officials are still touting the need for conservation in the immediate future and beyond.

Several officials gathered Thursday morning on the Willard Bay Dike for a short media event to open a flood mitigation spillway, helping to drain water into the Great Salt Lake and take pressure off the lower Weber River and Willard Bay itself.

“When it was first built in the 1960s, it was thought to be kind of a boondoggle — ‘We’ll never use that reservoir. It’s kind of useless.’ Well, we’ve found out it is priceless when it comes to mitigating drought years,” said Scott Paxman, general manager for the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. “We pump a lot of water out of Willard Bay. It goes back towards the river and we can exchange water with a lot of the irrigation companies that have storage in the upper reaches of the Ogden and Weber (rivers).”

He said Willard Bay has been no less useful in times of abundance, especially this year as the district noticed the growing snowpack in February.

“We started releasing water from our reservoirs,” Paxman said. “We’ve released probably about 300,000 acre feet of water since then.”

He said that roughly equates to releasing 1.5 billion gallons of water.

“In the last two months, that’s picked up significantly and it’s been closer to 3.3 billion gallons per day that have been shuttled down the Weber River to the Great Salt Lake. We take off the river about 1,000 CFS (cubic-feet-per-second), or about 650 million gallons per day, and shepherd it to Willard Bay. And Willard Bay, as you can see, is pretty much full.

“Right now, we’re trying to help relieve some of the flooding issues down on the lower Weber River, so we’ll be opening the outlet of this Willard Bay Reservoir and shepherding water through the Willard Spur, again, back to the Great Salt Lake.”

Marlin Jensen of the district’s board of trustees was also invited to speak Thursday.

“As you know, last year, we were having some supply chain issues — no water to speak of,” he said. “I begin by thanking Mother Nature or whoever else is responsible for this bountious water year we’ve had.”

State Sen. Scott Sandall (R-Tremonton) said that the last couple of years have been a wakeup call.

“We’ve got to remember and give thanks and gratitude to the one lever that nobody here on this earth has the ability to pull that got pulled — we actually are blessed,” he said. “What I think was a secondary blessing that came out of the drought is we’ve got to focus and begin to change our mindset on the things that we can do and the parts we can play in conservation and better use of the water that does fall on our lands.”

He said there are many signs of progress on this front.

“Legislatively, we’ve taken some great steps to look at longer-term solutions and to help our public and everybody that consumes water to change their mindset a little bit and realize how precious this resource is … and we can do a better job at that. I think we’ve taken some great steps in the Legislature to try to do that.”

House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Schultz (R-Hooper) said he’s thankful for the foresight people had in building up the region.

“You really think about the infrastructure that’s been built and the forefathers that came before us in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s that built this great reservoir system to help us out and to think of where we were at just last year where we didn’t even have enough water in Northern Utah to water our lawns,” he said. “What we’re doing today is bringing 1,000 CFS out of the Weber River, catching it before it goes down to the bottom of the Weber River where all the flooding is currently happening and we’re bringing it over to this reservoir to fill this reservoir. Today we’re going to use it to let that water go directly to the Great Salt Lake. … It’s great forethought and we’re very appreciative of our forefathers that created this system that we’re benefiting today from.”

He said it’s important that current leaders act as those forefathers did.

“It’s incumbent on us to make generational investments and generational changes for our kids and grandkids to benefit from,” he said. “The only way we can do that today is in the form of conservation.”

Marcelle Shoop, director of the Saline Lakes Program for the National Audubon Society, also spoke Thursday, saying that releasing this water into the Great Salt Lake will be a huge boost to the nearby Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

“It supports tens of thousands of water birds,” she said. “When we get these spring flows like we’re going to see today coming into the spur, it helps freshen that water and provides the kind of environment where the vegetation can thrive and we can have the invertebrates these species need.”

Paxman closed by pointing out that even in this year of abundance, conservation shouldn’t be sacrificed.

“Conservation is more of a lifestyle change that we have to have, regardless of the weather, regardless of if it’s a drought year or a good water year,” he said. “We have to maintain that conservation ethic all the time.”


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