One hundred years ago, two lakes were unnaturally joined and a river altered. This spring, the ripple effects of those changes resurfaced.
The Utah Division of Water Resources created a stir when it, along with the state of Idaho, filed an application to appropriate up to 400,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear River last March. The application is seeking water PacifiCorp releases each spring ahead of the irrigation season to prevent flooding. The actual amount fluctuates each year, just like the region’s snowpack.
Since filing, the Division of Water Rights has received a deluge of emailed concerns and protests, which seem to indicate the public is steeped in misinformation about the plan and what it means for both Bear Lake and the Great Salt Lake.
The Utah State Engineer has yet to weigh in on the application, but a favorable decision will likely have a profound impact on both water bodies.
To understand how they’re all connected, it helps to look back in time.
Bear Lake is small but deep, straddling the Utah-Idaho border, high in the Bear River Range. The Great Salt Lake is large but shallow, sitting at the bottom of the Great Basin.
Bear Lake is one of the oldest lakes in North America, formed sometime between 250,000 and several million years ago. Like the Great Salt Lake, Bear Lake lies in a topographically closed basin, with water flowing in but only leaving the lake through evaporation. Bear Lake’s isolation lasted for thousands of years, until a few industrious power pioneers explored the area and noticed Bear Lake’s proximity to the Bear River, only a few miles away. They saw a lot of potential.
“They looked at difference in elevation from Bear Lake and Great Salt Lake. That’s as big a drop as Niagara Falls,” said David Eskelsen, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp. “Because Niagara Falls had been used for hydropower, they said ‘Maybe there’s something we can do there on the Bear River.’”
Those hydropower prospectors changed the course of the river and the region’s history.
In 1916, PacifiCorp’s predecessors began work on the Stewart Dam. The structure diverted the entirety of the Bear River into Bear Lake, effectively turning the lake into a reservoir. They began pumping water from the lake back into the riverbed a few miles downstream in 1918, both for agriculture and to generate power.
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The Bear River is the Great Salt Lake’s largest tributary, which means the project also linked the two lakes. Any water stored in Bear Lake would eventually reach Great Salt Lake — unless it was stored and consumed by people along the way.
These days, PacifiCorp’s storage in Bear Lake and four downstream Bear River dams can generate up to 107 megawatts — enough to power about 53,000 modern homes. But the main purpose of the project — and the storage or river water in Bear Lake — is to provide farmers with irrigation water.
To prevent any liability from flooding during spring runoff, PacifiCorp releases water until the lake level hits a targeted elevation of 5,918 feet by March 31.
Bear Lake is considered “full” at 5,923.65 feet, meaning PacifiCorp would have to release just over 5.5 feet from the lake at its highest point. That amounts to 400,000 acre-feet — the amount Utah Division of Water Resources is seeking with its recent application.
But it’s unlikely PacifiCorp will ever release that amount of water, especially with climate change and a future that points to a dwindling snowpack.
“It’s rare we have enough water in the spring to fill all the way to the top,” said Connely Baldwin, a hydrologist with PacifiCorp.
In fact, the utility has only released the full 5.5 feet in elevation from Bear Lake once, during the high runoff years of the 1980s, Baldwin said. This past spring, for example, PacifiCorp released around 3 feet from the lake.
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Here’s where things get tricky: The March 31 deadline is before irrigation season begins. That means the released flood mitigation water flows down the Bear River uninterrupted, all the way to the Great Salt Lake. And losing that rare, uninterrupted pulse of water has advocates of the Great Salt Lake concerned.
Still, filling up Bear Lake and drawing down the water over the summer has environmental consequences of its own.
Those impacts worry Claudia Cottle, who lives near on Bear Lake’s shore. She’s also the executive director of Bear Lake Watch, a group that’s been raising awareness about Bear Lake’s water woes since a heavy drought shrank the lake to a near-record low in the 1990s.
“The lake has function, some for people and a lot for fish,” Cottle said.
The lake has four species of fish found there and nowhere else — Bear Lake whitefish, Bear Lake sculpin, Bonneville cisco and Bonneville whitefish. When the lake’s low, it can interfere with their spawning habits.
The unnatural shoreline fluctuations also impact wave activities that produce the lake’s famous sandy beaches. This year, Cottle watched the water dredge up muck over the winter, then rapidly recede, leaving her own beach piled with muck.
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“Pretty soon the land is encroaching into the lake, so we start to fundamentally change the lake, its shape, its function,” she said. “The lake can take some abuse; it can go down and go up. But that timing, that connectivity, all those things matter.”
The Bear River has introduced sediment, Cottle said, that Bear Lake wouldn’t churn up if it were still isolated. Over time, sediment fills lakes and reservoirs. Part of the reason Bear Lake is so old is because of its isolation.
“It’s been able to survive when all the water went into the glaciers, when it all melted away, when (the region) had its driest periods,” Cottle said. “That’s what made Bear Lake live so long, it no longer had a river coming in and dumping the sand.”
She worries with neglect, the lake could go the way of Utah Lake — plagued by toxic algae blooms and invasive species. Non-native, water-sucking phragmites have already started popping up around Cottle’s property.
“Bear Lake is not just another pretty place. It really is scientifically important. Geologically, it’s very rare. Socially, it’s important. Economically, it’s our base. We sell blue. It’s all we have to sell,” Cottle said, referring to the lake’s electric blue waters, caused by calcium carbonate in the surrounding limestone.
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Cottle said she feels cautious optimism about the Division of Water Rights and state of Idaho plans for Bear Lake’s flood mitigation water. But only if that means more water stays in the lake and isn’t used for more development downstream.
The division has said it won’t build dams to store the mitigation water but has been vague about where it will go and when. They’ve indicated the water could be used to stabilize Bear Lake and keep its elevation a foot higher.
“We look at it as an opportunity. More people are looking at what’s going on with Bear Lake how can we fix this,” Cottle said.
Meanwhile, the Great Salt Lake is shrinking, kicking up concerns about lakebed dust pollution and disappearing habitat for birds.
Keeping PacifiCorp’s flood mitigation water upstream means even less water will reach the Great Salt Lake.
“It is water that would’ve gone to Great Salt Lake, that’s true,” Division of Water Resources Director Eric Millis told the Standard-Examiner in April.
The division declined to offer any further comment about the application but noted they understood it was confusing to the public.
A recent study showed the Great Salt Lake would be 11 feet higher if not for municipal, industrial and agricultural water use, mostly on the Wasatch Front.
That’s why Great Salt Lake advocates worry about more plans to divert away more water, whether its future dams on the Bear River or the division’s ambiguous claim for flood mitigation waters from Bear Lake.
“I don’t know exactly what it all means. And that’s the problem,” said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of Friends of Great Salt Lake. “I don’t even know if the Division of Water Resources knows what it means.”
Among her frustrations, de Frietas noted the division hasn’t explained why it needs the water or where it will go.
“It’s like sitting down and saying, ‘OK, I’m going to write a term paper on 400,000 feet of water but I don’t know what my outline’s going to be,’” she said. “So how can you begin reassuring people or educating people about what you’re going to do with this?”
For her part, Cottle said she thinks solutions can be found on all the lakes connected by the Bear River, which she calls “sisters.”
“If it’s the supply that’s changed, we need to change our use, not steal from sister to give to the other,” she said. “We need to understand all the issues and relationships. It’s not a competition between the sisters. They might fight sometimes, but we’re family.”
NOTE: This story was updated to include a clarification. Bear Lake formed more than 250,000 years ago and has intermittently connected to Bear River. Research on the lake’s sediments suggests that the last time the lake naturally connected to the river, however, was 12,000 years ago.