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The Bear: Life and Death of a Western River

Plans to tap more Bear River water raise concerns downstream

Chapter III - Harvest

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Bear River Agriculture 01

The Bear River winds through small towns and farming communities near Bear River City in Box Elder County before reaching the Great Salt Lake several miles to the south.

The Bear: Life and Death of a Western River

Chapter III — Harvest

Between two bends in the Bear River, not far from where his great-great grandparents' first homestead, Joel Ferry built a gathering place for his community. 

The site used to be a cattle feed lot. Now it's a pumpkin patch, complete with hay bale mazes, corncob slingshots and slides. Tall trees and willows grow along the banks of the Bear. Autumn sunsets flush the Wellsville Mountains to the east with alpenglow.

"I thought, 'You know, this is a neat place. Let’s do something better than what we have. Let’s change and be better stewards,'" Ferry said. "It’s a celebration of harvest."

Ferry farms thousands of acres at the Bear's end, just before the river's mouth at Great Salt Lake. For 120 years and five generations, his family has harvested water from the river to yield crops and cattle, to contribute to the Corrine community.

But as Utah communities grow and policymakers look to harvest more Bear River water to meet future needs, farmers like Ferry have concerns. 

"For my kids, I want there to be good jobs here so they can enjoy this and don’t have to move somewhere else," he said. "It’s an awesome place to live, but it does put demands on the system."

Bear River Agriculture 02

Joel Ferry examines an ear of feed corn grown on his farm near Corrine on Oct. 1, 2018. Ferry's family has been farming along the edge of the Bear River in Utah for five generations. Ferry jokingly describes himself as a "duck farmer" since he has converted some of his farmland into wetlands and manages his property for waterfowl benefits.

Utah's population is projected to double in the next 50 years, to nearly 6 million people by 2065. Two-thirds of that growth will come from Utahns having children, according to the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute demographic projections. Utah is currently the third-fastest growing state in the U.S. 

Utah is dry, however, which has planners turning to the Bear River for relief. The tri-state Bear River Compact grants Utah up to 220,000 acre-feet of Bear River water each year, water it hasn't yet tapped.

In 1991, the Legislature directed the Utah Division of Water Resources to begin developing that share, divvying it up among four counties — 60,000 acre-feet each to Box Elder and Cache counties and 100,000 acre-feet to urban areas served by the Weber Basin and Jordan Valley water districts.

Ferry is running for a seat in Utah's House District 1. He's watching the development closely.

"Water’s going to become more and more important, more and more difficult to manage," he said. "Something’s got to give."

Ten miles of the Bear River run through Ferry's family property, which he manages with his father and uncle.

He talks about how the river weaves its way through everyone living and working in the watershed. He trusts the hundreds of irrigators and canal companies upstream to only use their share. When there's a shortage, everyone takes their cut.

"We all use Bear River water, we’re all interconnected. We all benefit or are negatively impacted by the actions of others," he said.

It's a 500 mile-long community threaded together by water.

With more development, however, the thread could snap.

Bear River Agriculture 03

A combine and truck harvest corn on the Ferry farm near Corrine on Oct. 1, 2018. Joel Ferry's ranch and feed land is irrigated by water from the final stretch of the Bear River before it makes its way into the Great Salt Lake.

Some of Ferry's century-old water rights are only valid at high river flows, which is why he's worried about the state's plans for the Bear.

"The more dams that go on the river, the less those flows happen and my rights are basically worthless," he said. "The river used to flood all the time. Now it never does." 


In the Bear River's lowlands, where Ferry farms, temperatures are high and precipitation is scarce. This past season was bad — no measurable rain for 100 days.

"We were bone dry here," he said. "The system is designed to anticipate a rain storm here and there to take the edge off. That never happened."

June was especially hard for Box Elder farmers, Ferry said, because so many were drawing on the canals to irrigate thirsty plants like wheat and corn.

"Everybody’s wanting their water and there wasn’t enough capacity in the system to handle it," he said. "It will be really tough (next year) if we have another dry winter like we did."

Bear River Agriculture 04

Joel Ferry is reflected in an irrigation canal on his farm near Corrine on Oct. 1, 2018. Ferry waters his land through a network of small canals and ditches that divert water out of the Bear River.

Like most farmers on the watershed, Ferry flood irrigates his fields. While flooding might seem inefficient for such a parched area, it has benefits.

Ferry enjoys the thousands of ibis, ducks and geese that come to eat bugs and rest and croon in chorus — flocks he said he wouldn't see if he used sprinklers.

"When we flood irrigate, all the return flows will collect into drainages. Then we use those drainages to make duck ponds, feed sloughs, stock watering ponds. Eventually, they return back into Bear River," he said.

Ferry also uses his water rights to cultivate waterfowl habitat. He added public angler access to the Bear through his land. As an avid duck hunter, Ferry sees recreation as another vibrant part of life in Box Elder County.

"I look at the Bear River and it’s our birthright. Why can’t development come here and we use the water here?" Ferry said. "Because once it’s gone, it’s gone. They’re not making anymore water."


On the other side of the Wellsville Mountains, Cache Water District Manager Nathan Daugs has his own perspective of the watershed. He agrees harvesting the Bear River is inevitable, but he's OK with piping some of the basin's water to urban Wasatch Front counties to the south.

"If we don’t send the water there, they’ll send the growth here. That’s the way I see it," he said.

That's not to say Cache County isn't experiencing growth of its own.

On the eastern edge of the valley, Bear River tributaries pour from the Bear River Range — Blacksmith Fork, the Little Bear and Logan River. That's also where communities are ballooning, like Nibley, North Logan and Hyde Park.

In the past two years, the east side of the county added two new high schools to keep pace.

Much of the county remains blanketed by agriculture, however, which inextricably tied to the county's economy and reliable sources of water. And on the west side of the valley, next to the Wellsvilles, water is scarce.

Cache County file

Cache Valley farmland and the Wellsville Mountains. 

"A lot of people think as we develop agricultural ground there will be this huge surplus in water for the county," Daugs said. "There is a lot of ground being converted to development. But that doesn’t really result in a surplus of water."

Around 106,000 acres of cropland in the county are irrigated. Another 70,000 acres of farmland in the valley aren't irrigated. Those non-irrigated lands without water rights are mostly located on the county's edges and foothills. They're lands a recent county Water Master Plan identified as desirable for new homes.

"As that ground develops, we’re immediately at a shortage," Daugs said. 

Climate change is fueling more complications. Forecasters warn of a Bear River Basin where more water falls as rain instead of snow. Daugs said that makes Cache Valley's water supply all the more unpredictable. 

"If we do go that direction, we’re going to (need) more storage just to function how we do now," he said.

Voters approved formation of the Cache Water District two years ago to make sure the valley had a voice in state water planning, a voice that won't be drowned out by water districts in the Weber Basin and Jordan Valley.

"You can’t say 'We’re going to run out of water three years from now, let’s build a dam.' It’s a long process," Daugs said. "Planning now and planning early can put (Bear River development) off even longer."


Ferry, too, said he's looking beyond what he can see today.

He spent $10,000 (with matching funds from the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service) this year to regrade and rebuild a 600-foot stretch where the Bear River kept loading with sediment, eating into his ground.

He placed 30 acres under a conservation easement in 2016 and plans to add more so much his property will remain farmland.

"I’m not just looking at what’s in front of me. It’ll be good for my kids, my grandkids. Every penny I make I invest back in my farm," he said.

He's also running for a legislative seat, in part, to make sure the agricultural way of life is preserved.

Bear River Agriculture 05

Yellow-headed blackbirds fly over feeding cattle on the Ferry farm near Corrine on Oct. 1, 2018. The birds are one of many species that lives in the wetlands surrounding the Bear River.

"Agriculture is really tough right now. Commodities are low, there are trade wars going on," he said. "That’s part of the reason big farms get bigger and the little guy, the next generation, doesn’t come back."

The cost of fuel is up. The cost of fertilizer is up. So is the cost of land. That's why Ferry has branched out and added pumpkin patches and duck hunting ponds to his operation — for alternative revenue streams.

He knows not all of his five children will be able to work the farm when they're grown, but he wants to make sure his Box Elder community gleans enough benefits from Utah's growth that they have a reason to stay.  

Many of those benefits, he said, will come from careful management of the Bear River.

"It’s a terminal river. The Bear stays here, it ends here," he said. "It sustains life, it brings life and it’s our way of life. It’s part of who we are. It deserves to be loved and cared for."

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen. 

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