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The Bear: Life and Death of a Western River

At its end, Utahns worry about Bear River's future

Chapter IV — Dissolution

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The Bear River flows through the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near the end of the river on June 22, 2018. After 491 miles, the river ends at the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake.

The Bear: Life and Death of a Western River

Chapter IV — Dissolution

The Bear is the longest North American river that doesn't end in the sea.

Its mouth is at the Great Salt Lake, America's Dead Sea, the bottom of a terminal basin. But even as it ends, the Bear River supports life and livelihoods.

Its waters diffuse into abundant wetlands that support millions of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. It has carved minerals from mountains over millennia, which have concentrated in the Great Salt Lake and now support multi-million dollar extraction industries. Its nutrients feed algae in the lake, which in turn feed an abundance of brine shrimp. 

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A White-faced Ibis, left, and a Black-necked Stilt feed in the shallow waters at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on June 22, 2018. The wetlands at the end of the Bear River are a major stopover for birds migrating through Western Northern America.

"Bear River is such a critical life-giving source for people and wildlife — all along its path — and ultimately as the greatest source of water for Great Salt Lake," said Marcelle Shoop, director of the Saline Lakes Program for the National Audubon Society.

The Bear is Great Salt Lake's largest tributary, bringing it 60 percent of its annual inflows.

But mid-October this autumn, the river instead disappeared into a vast mudflat that used to be Bear River Bay.

John Luft, director of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, has worked on the lake for 20 years. He had never seen it like this, in mid-October, so late past the end of irrigation season.

"There’s essentially nothing out there. Usually this time of year, there’s ... millions of birds out there. There basically were none," he said. 

RELATED: Millions of birds face dire future as Great Salt Lake shrinks

Based on his surveys, Luft said Great Salt Lake received almost zero flow from the Bear since July (a trend that can be seen in U.S. Geological Survey satellite images).

"Zero is not good," he said.

Part of the problem is the long, dry summer that followed a winter with abnormally low snowpack. The same week in October that Luft last flew over a parched Bear River Bay, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency due to low reservoirs and lack of precipitation. 

Everyone tapping the Bear River for irrigation or cities or habitat management has legal right to the water, rights filed at the state since the time of Anglo settlement. Utah policymakers have long-term plans to divert even more to meet the needs of a growing population.

Those plans have wildlife managers and environmental advocates worried about the future of Great Salt Lake and searching for ways to make sure the Bear River still runs its entire course.

"Any long-term reduction in Bear River flows or significant changes in seasonal flow patterns into Great Salt Lake have the potential for serious consequences – for both people and birds," Shoop said.

For the birds, Great Salt Lake is a site of hemispheric importance. They stop there to nest, to fatten up for migration, to rest. They're running out of stopovers in the arid West as wetlands give way to development and drought dries up what's left.

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A hunter crosses the frozen marshes at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge during the final weeks of the waterfowl hunting season on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015. After 491 miles, the river ends at the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake.

For people, a bare Bear River Bay and shrinking Great Salt Lake could be a catastrophic public health crisis. People living downwind of desiccated lakes throughout the world are grappling with toxic dust pollution.

RELATED: As Great Salt Lake dries up, Utah air quality concerns blow in

The state economy could also take a hit if it loses brine shrimp and mineral extraction businesses. A 2012 study estimated lake industries contribute $1.2 billion to Utah's economy each year.  

RELATED: Mineral extraction on Great Salt Lake has local, national and global impact

"I think water is getting a lot of attention statewide, I think we’re realizing the water laws we developed when the state was new and the West was just getting settled and people were moving water around aren’t necessarily working anymore," said Ann Neville, regional director for the Nature Conservancy.

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A Cliff swallow perches on phragmites at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on June 22, 2018.

More water development worries her most. The Bear River Compact grants Utah 220,000 acre-feet from the river, water the state plans to dam and pipe to meet the needs of a growing population.

"I think a lot of planners feel extremely strongly that it is inevitable, but I feel we are not very good at predicting what’s going to happen in the future," she said. "I do not know if it’s inevitable because of ingenuity and ideas, the brainpower that we have from people who can figure out different ways to save water."

RE-THINKING WESTERN WATER LAW

Some advocates of the river and lake want better conservation practices in Utah instead of a Bear River dam. Water managers declared last winter they could push back developing the river by decades thanks to secondary water metering and conservation efforts. 

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

"When we talk about the Bear River development project, right now that’s pushed out to 2050. But, obviously, the Great Salt Lake is having issues right now, so I think we have to look a little closer at where we’re at right now," said Candice Hasenyager, assistant director of Water Planning for the Utah Division of Water Resources.

Craig Miller, an engineer with the Utah Division of Water Resources, co-authored a study in 2016 that found Great Salt Lake would be around 11 feet higher today if not for human water consumption.

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The sun sets over the Promontory Mountains and the frozen marshes of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015. After 491 miles, the river ends at the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake.

By far, the biggest depletions came from agriculture. Irrigation has depleted 63 percent of water that would have otherwise flowed to the lake.

Even if a farmer wanted to use less irrigation water to benefit the Bear River, Utah's water law makes it nearly impossible.  

"We’re looking to answer that very question — how do you make sure (saved water) makes it to the lake? Right now, you can’t," Miller said.

That's because the next water right holder down the line has a right to take water left in the stream. And if a farmer doesn't use his water right, he risks losing it to someone else.

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An American avocet feeds in the shallow waters of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on June 22, 2018. The wetlands at the end of the Bear River are a major stopover for birds migrating through Western Northern America.

One solution the division is exploring is a water banking program, which would allow a water right holder to transfer all or a portion of her water to other uses, even if it's temporary. 

"It's not just to address Great Salt Lake issues and in-stream flow issues, but water supply and availability issues," Hasenyager said. "If a farmer wants to take a two-year hiatus, go on a mission and put water in a bank, that's the whole idea."

A water banking plan for Utah is still in its early stages. The program would likely need approval from the state legislature. It will also take money. The division wants to channel grants from the Bureau of Reclamation and get funding from state lawmakers in the coming session.

RELATED: It's time to move Utah's pioneer-era water law into 21st century, advisors say

"We have no idea whether that’s going to get approved," Hasenyager said.

Environmental advocates want to be careful about any changes that would disrupt the agricultural community, however.

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Tundra swans fill the ponds on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge around the final stretch of the Bear River on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Tens of thousands of the large white swans spend part of the winter around the Great Salt Lake. Around half of that population lives and feeds in the refuge in Box Elder County.

Farming has big environmental and economic benefits in the region. Agriculture contributes $3.5 billion each year to the state, according to economic research by Utah State University. 

"I feel strongly the agricultural community has kept open land and fairly healthy rivers for a very long time because they rely on that water," said Neville with The Nature Conservancy. "They know their neighbors rely on that water. They are probably far more connected to water use and water shortages than any other person within an urban setting would be."

Plus, water conservation can be complex, especially when it comes to farming.

"If you went to some guy that was flood irrigating hay ... the way great-grandad did, then he’s not very efficient," said Don Barnett, Engineer-Manager for the Bear River Commission. "But what happened to the over-water? It went back to the Bear River system then down to Great Salt Lake."

Efficiency in irrigation often leads to taking more water out of the system over time, Barnett said, because farmers can use their water rights to grow more crops.

More crops means more water lost through the plants' evapotranspiration process, which means less water flowing down ditches, trickling down the water table and returning to the watershed.

"We take our saved water and give it to new growth," Barnett said. "If Utah were to say 'we think there ought to be a water right on Great Salt Lake, water allocated to Great Salt Lake,' Utah certainly could do so with its allocations given to it."

USING WHAT'S LEFT

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the last water right on the Bear River, which they use to create wetland habitat for birds and a place for people to recreate at the 74,000-acre Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. 

More than 200 species of birds stop at the habit haven there at varying times of year. Currently there's an influx of geese and menagerie of ducks — green-wingedteals, northern pintails and canvasbacks. There are also dark-feathered cormorants and powerful peregrine falcons. Ibis and egrets are still passing through on their migration south. Soon, the tundra swans will arrive.

Sitting at the end of the river, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge has the least dependable flows. It's subject to all the drought and usage happening upstream.

"Right now it’s been up and down, up and down, up and down, which influences how quickly we can fill some of these units," said Suzanne Baird, the acting refuge manager.

RELATED: Just in time for duck season, cows improve Great Salt Lake wetlands

The refuge is facing internal volatility, too. The administration is severely understaffed. A third of its positions sit vacant, Baird said, including a biologist and permanent refuge manager. 

The volatility at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seems to extend to the top. The agency's director abruptly stepped down over the summer. 

RELATED: Federal wildlife director steps down from post, plans return to Utah

Baird came to the Bear River refuge "on detail" three months ago to help implement a directive from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to expand hunting access, a process that typically takes up to a year. 

"We were told 'We want this by the winter.' So we had two months," she said. "Water resources ... I don't know — that’s what it’s like, trying to walk in in the middle of very busy season to try and understand what the issues are on very short notice."

By mid-November, Baird will depart Bear River for a job in Minnesota, leaving the refuge manager position vacant again.

As temperatures dropped by the end of October and the Bear began reaching Great Salt Lake again, it had many thinking about the winter ahead.

"It’d take over five years of great snowpack and wet spring years to even come back to where you’re looking at a decent lake level. We’re so far from it. It’s a shame," Luft said. "We can’t continue to take more water and then have the climate issues we’re having, these dry, dry years."

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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