The Bear: Life and Death of a Western River
Chapter II — Growth
At 10 a.m. in early May, on schedule, the gates of the Grace Dam in southeast Idaho opened. A torrent of Bear River water poured down the basalt Black Canyon gorge.
Water lapped up a modest boat ramp with a warning posted by PacifiCorp. "Experts only," it said, warning of the violent rapids ahead. A group of seven Salt Lake City-based kayakers pulled boats off trucks. The friends have bonded over whitewater. They call themselves the "squid squad."
As the crew watched water surge from Grace Dam, their adrenaline also coursed. Black Canyon of the Bear has some of the hardest and best whitewater in the Intermountain West.
"It’s kind of a gnarly river," said Kristie Giles, a kayaker who moved to Utah from Pennsylvania around a decade ago. "There will be at least a couple issues."
In southeast Idaho more than anywhere, the power of Bear River is on display. A century ago settlers tapped its water to electrify the region and to build an agricultural empire — sugar beets, barley, beef. Growth rolls on. New generations of river users have emerged, who mostly turn to the Bear not for work but for play.
With all these competing interests, the trick is finding balance.
Downstream from where the Squid Squad launched their brightly colored boats, flows through Black Canyon are normally far less impressive. Nearly the entire Bear River is forced through an old wood stave and steel pipe, pressurizing the water and sending it across verdant fields to the Grace hydropower plant's turbines five miles away.
Upstream, before its water reach Grace, the river has been tapped at least 130 times for irrigation, then completely moved from its natural bed down a canal, into Bear Lake. A century-old station has pumped the river back to its channel several miles downstream.
From Bear Lake to the Utah border, the Bear River will flow through three hydro-plants in Idaho, including the Grace plant. It will generate 77 megawatts of energy — enough for 38,500 modern homes (the Cutler dam in Utah generates another 30 megawatts).
"These are projects that were built in the transition from pioneer to modern times," said David Eskelsen, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp.
Settlers built the dams and turbines with the aid of horse-drawn carts nearly 100 years ago. They harnessed the Bear to power mines, to illuminate streetlights in urban Ogden and Salt Lake City.
In water-strapped Idaho and Utah, storing the Bear River in Bear Lake for power projects also meant farmers had reliable access to irrigation water during drought and protection from fickle years of flood.
"Storage capability in Bear Lake has enabled agriculture in the region to continue, when it probably would not have otherwise," Eskelsen said.
With growth came change. Soon homes were installing electric washing machines and refrigerators. Power providers turned to coal to keep pace with demand.
In the 1930s, a crippling drought struck the Bear's farmers. Dwindling supplies meant fraught relationships between Utah, Wyoming and Idaho irrigators.
In 1958, stakeholders struck a water sharing agreement with an act of Congress and a presidential signature. With a few amendments, the tri-state Bear River Compact has governed use in the watershed ever since. It also required power companies to prioritize the river's irrigators.
At the same time, a post-war industrial boom meant more automobiles and more leisure time and a surge of anglers, boaters and campers visiting the Bear River and its mountain tributaries.
'That's my river'
Wildlife biologist Matt Lucia grew up on the banks of the Bear, where he learned to fish and swim and connect with land and water. His parents owned a small farm in Riverdale, Idaho. As an adult he moved and traveled around the West.
The complexity of the Bear River began to sink in while Lucia flew from California to Colorado for a conference. From his window seat above, he saw the ways the arid landscape was linked by watersheds.
"I saw Bear River and thought, 'That’s my river,'" he said. "I was going through a divorce, I needed something to put some energy and some purpose into. When I looked down, it was one of those epiphany moments."
The epiphany grew into a plan. Lucia would raise awareness about issues facing the Bear, the biggest river in North American that doesn't connect to the sea, by traveling the entire watershed.
"The subtext will be, we have an amazing resource here. Let’s focus our energy on protecting what we have," Lucia said. "There’s a need for increased funding in this landscape."
He'll snowboard down the snowy peaks of the High Uintas Wilderness, hike to the headwaters, then kayak the length of the river to its mouth at Great Salt Lake, holding educational events in towns along the way — Cokeville, Montpelier, Soda Springs, Preston, Corrine.
He expects to begin his journey the summer of 2020.
In a way, Lucia's plan brings together old and new uses of the watershed, showing the ways they often, quite literally, clash.
As he paddles, Lucia will have to dodge barbed wire fences, irrigation head gates, sections too dry to paddle. He'll navigate the different laws governing streambed access in three states. He'll negotiate with a lot of large landowners.
And, of course, he'll have to find his way around some big power-producing dams.
Bringing new energy to sapped waters
PacifiCorp now owns and operates all the hydropower projects on the Bear River. It makes up a minuscule portion of the utility juggernaut's power, but the plants are worth maintaining.
"It’s still a very valuable resource. Hydro-electricity has a zero-fuel cost," Eskelsen said. "The reservoirs are relatively small, so it has a relatively low environmental impact."
Above all, hydro-power plants can kickstart coal plants that fail after an earthquake.
The environmental impact of using the Bear to build a region, however, isn't insignificant.
By 1955, a report from the former U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare found the river's trout and game fisheries destroyed by sanitary waste, agricultural runoff and silt erosion.
Decades later, water quality remains variable in the watershed from Bear Lake and below.
Power production takes its own toll, as the Black Canyon shows. A 2001 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found the dribble of water flowing through the canyon was heavily polluted with runoff. Weeds choked the dry river channel. The dam blocked fish from swimming and spawning upstream.
In 2015, Lucia returned home to southeast Idaho, both to begin his Bear River pilgrimage and to helm the Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust.
"We work with private landowners who wish to voluntarily place development restrictions on their property forever," he said.
Preserving large tracts of land in the Bear River watershed preserves recreation access and wildlife while sustaining the agricultural economy that built the region. It means less polluted runoff from urbanizing areas.
"You have to recognize, human population growth is going to continue, especially on the Wasatch Front and Cache Valley," Lucia said. "With technology today, you can live pretty much anywhere you want and the recreation, access to outdoors and scenery (those areas) provide are amenities. Let’s get on the front end of growth so we’re not reacting in 25 years."
Conservation easements mean farmers retain ownership of their land, but Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust purchase the development rights.
"Most farmers are very land rich but cash thin, so for those who want to realize some of the value of their property ... but don’t want to see it change, this is a perfect way to do that," Lucia said.
The easements can include terms, like cattle fencing to protect riparian areas. Those buffers improve water quality and river habitat.
Buying up property's development rights takes money, however, and most of Lucia's funding comes from a curious source — PacifiCorp.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been charged with considering recreational and ecological interests before re-licensing privately owned hydro-power projects.
When PacifiCorp applied to FERC for a 30-year renewal of their Bear River projects in 1999, FERC required the company to form an Environmental Coordination Committee, comprised of a variety of state, federal, tribal and non-governmental stakeholders in the watershed.
The committee selects and approves projects to help mitigate the ecological impacts to the Bear.
PacifiCorp pours hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to fund that mitigation work, money Lucia has been able to funnel to easements and restoration efforts in the Bear River Basin.
To date, the Sagebrush Steppe Land Trust has protected nearly 3,300 acres along the Bear River and its tributaries in Idaho. They've spent $3 million in conservation easements.
"Those funds didn’t go to us, they pass from us to the landowners," Lucia said. "These are working farmers and ranchers, so $3 million is a big chunk of change."
A team of boaters also banded together during the relicensing process to fight for Black Canyon. In a 2002, PacifiCorp settled with American Whitewater to release flows from the Grace dam during limited weekends in the spring and early summer. The utility also provides constant freshwater to the canyon for fish.
The dam released the first boating flows for Black Canyon in 2008. Some members of the Salt Lake City Squid Squad were there, including Josh Reinhart.
Things back then were still murky, he said.
"The river was so much more polluted and nasty from all the cattle and fertilizer," he said. "Dilution is the solution to pollution, but it hadn’t run (with water) in years."
But the Bear has come a long way. Even in dry years, as the waters improve, there might still be enough river to go around.
Chapter III of the series will publish on Sunday, Oct. 28 and focus on Utah's push to harvest more water from the Bear River.