One hundred years ago, some industrious power pioneers connected the Bear River with Bear Lake. They essentially turned the lake into a battery for hydropower and a reservoir for farming. It helped build the booming Intermountain region, but joining lake and river also had major environmental consequences. The ripple effects are still being felt today. Journalists Benjamin Zack and Leia Larsen met with PacifiCorp to learn more about the Bear River Project, then chatted with one of Bear Lake's biggest advocates about her concerns for the future.
“Out Standing in a Field” is the Standard-Examiner’s podcast about science and the environment. Subscribe and find more episodes wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Google Play, SoundCloud, Stitcher and TuneIn. Follow “Out Standing in a Field” on Facebook for photos and notes from the field.
An edited transcript of the podcast is included below.
The outro song is "Blue Springs Forever" by Waylon Thornton
Benjamin Zack: We’re here for another episode of “Out Standing in a Field.”
Leia Larsen: This time we went up to Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho Border. I’ve been going there since I was a kid, building sandcastles on the beach, collecting seashells and swimming. Ben, what were your impressions the first time you went to Bear Lake?
Zack: It’s beautiful, I’m just dumbfounded by that color.
Larsen: Yes, that electric blue water. It’s sometimes called the “Caribbean of the Rockies.” The reason it’s so blue is because of all the calcium carbonate in the lake.
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Zack: We went up to the far north end of Bear Lake to what looks like a dam, but it’s actually a pump station.
You have the beach on one side of the road, and on the other side you have wetlands. The big building up there is called Lifton Station. It’s owned by PacfiCorp, parent company to Rocky Mountain Power, and it plays a big role in altering both the course of the Bear River and what the Bear Lake looks like.
Part of what took us up there is Bear Lake is in the news. The states of Utah and Idaho jointly failed claims to 400,000 acre-feet of water on the Bear River. That’s tied to Bear Lake.
Larsen: We met with PacifiCorp hydrologist Connely Baldwin and spokesman David Eskelsen.
Zack: They first gave us some background on how the Bear Lake and Bear River are connected.
David Eskelsen: Basically, the Bear River is an irrigation project that also generates hydro-electricity.
Connely Baldwin: There are a few canals that deliver water to and from Bear Lake. The history goes way back, to even before pioneers came, when they were first doing exploration, they noticed the Bear River flowed just to the north of Bear Lake. At the time of pioneers, the river didn’t flow into Bear Lake so there was a canal constructed to divert Bear River into Bear Lake.
Zack: That water flows down the canal just by gravity.
The entire river is diverted out, comes into the marshy area known as Dingle Marsh or Mud Lake and enters into the lake near the beach up there. A little way to the west, the water is pumped back out, put down another canal and reconnects with the Bear River downstream.
Baldwin: In the summer we pump water out and release back to the Bear River when it’s needed downstream for irrigation. Bear Lake fluctuates on a wide range. We really need to only operate for flood control at its highest elevations.
Larsen: Flood control. That’s basically what took us to Bear Lake.
Zack: The states of Utah and Idaho jointly filed to claim 400,000 acre-feet. There was some confusion early on that maybe that was tied to the Bear River development project, the dam some groups are proposing to meet future growth needs in Utah, but this has nothing to do with that.
It’s water PacifiCorp releases for flood control.
Larsen: Did you release anything this year?
Baldwin: This year we did because 2017 was such a high water year, that the lake did peak high enough that we were above our target elevations and released water through the summer and fall until March 31st we were making releases. March 31 is roughly the time we start seeing spring runoff, so that’s when we started storing in Bear Lake and refilling for the next season
Leia: And no one is tapping that for irrigation? It’s going —
Baldwin: It goes, it flows right to the Great Salt Lake.
Larsen: There’s the rub with this whole thing, the flood water states are trying to claim. It’s water that would have otherwise flowed to the Great Salt Lake because they’re releasing it before it’s tapped for irrigation. And if you are a regular listener to this podcast, you know the Great Salt Lake is in dire need of water.
Zack: So last season, Bear Lake peaked at 5,922.32, that’s about a foot and a half from full.
Larsen: Over the winter and early spring, until March 31, they released water and took down the level to that 5,919 feet.
Zack: That’s about three feet or so in change.
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Connely listed the hydropower dams that operate below Bear Lake.
Baldwin: So there’s a plant near Soda Springs, Idaho, one near Grace, Idaho, and one near Preston, Idaho, our Oneida Plant, and one west of Logan at Cutler. Those are the plants where we generate electricity.
Larsen: The first company to try and connect Bear River with Bear Lake for hydropower purposes was Telluride Light and Power. They were acquired by Utah Power and Light, then PacifiCorp merged with Utah Power in 1989, so PacifiCorp oversees all these projects on the Bear River system from Bear Lake and below.
Baldwin: It’s pretty interesting because Bear Lake is a natural lake we use as a reservoir as well. It’s about 208 feet deep. We only use the top 23 and half feet or so as a reservoir. So in terms of lake volumes, there’s about 6.5 million acre-feet, of which there’s about 1.4 million-acre feet that’s usable as reservoir storage, the rest is just the natural lake water.
Zack: An acre-foot that they’re measuring everything in, imagine an acre that’s a foot deep in water and you have an acre-foot.
Larsen: A football field is about an acre.
Baldwin: Yep. It’s also interesting, there’s some that were doing some research and discovered Bear Lake is quite old, a wide range of age from 500,000 to 6 million years old, I’ve heard thrown around 1.5 million years old. It’s interesting because most lakes fill up with sediment and become a wide spot in the river. But the geology of Bear Lake is such that essentially, due to a fault on the east side of Bear Lake, the bottom is slowly receding and getting deeper, so it’s a very old lake.
Larsen: We have a little more detail about the lake’s interesting history that we gathered from a Utah State University study, “History of human impact on Bear Lake,” published in 2007.
Zack: Scientists have been able to take core samples of Bear Lake’s sediments to piece together its history before humans began altering it with canals and such.
Larsen: Over the last 30,000 years, Bear River has sometimes connected with Bear Lake, and sometimes it hasn’t.
Zack: Core sample evidence shows that Bear River and Bear Lake probably haven’t been naturally connected for the past 12,000 years.
Larsen: Telluride Power Co. built its canal in 1911, the first to connect Bear River and Bear Lake once again.
Utah Power and Light later acquired Telluride. They added the Stewart Dam, which moves the Bear River out of its natural bed and down the Rainbow Canal.
Eskelsen: I guess probably up until about the 1930s, the energy produced on Bear River was about 75 percent of old Utah Power and Light’s capacity. So it was the major piece of energy production well into 1930s.
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Now it’s a very small proportion of the overall energy we supply to consumers, but it’s still very valuable. Hydropower doesn’t have a fuel cost, hydropower is very flexible and one of the things utilities like is some kind of power source that we can use if there’s ever a big problem.
Larsen: I read it’s 108 megawatts the river generates? How many homes would that be?
David: Well, if everything was generating about the same time, a megawatt of power can serve about 500 modern homes.
Zack: I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that we, as people, at one point just turned an entire river — not just diverted it a little bit, but said, “We’re going to take a left here, go a couple miles, put it in this lake, pull it out, go down a few miles.” It’s mind-boggling.
Larsen: It’s amazing what we were able to accomplish. By putting these dams on the Bear River, we electrified our region, we supported agriculture, we put the Intermountain area on the map.
But, of course, all these alternations we make to our environment have ripple effects and consequences.
We’re only starting to understand some of those consequences to Bear Lake.
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Zack: If you think about it, diverting Bear River into the lake then releasing the water over the irrigation season causes some major fluctuations to the lake level each year.
We visited someone who lives on the shores of Bear Lake and sees those fluctuations first-hand. She’s become one of the lake’s biggest environmental advocates.
Claudia Cottle: I’m Claudia Cottle. My husband and I, David, are the executive directors of Bear Lake Watch.
Larsen: How did you become a lake advocate?
Cottle: David’s father, Russ Cottle, was a founding member ... David’s dad grew up on the lake. That whole group was concerned about what was going on with the lake back in the early 1990s. It was so low, it was different, it was changing. People were really concerned.
It was so low that the Power Company needed to dredge at Lifton in order to get that little bit of water out they needed to deliver to the irrigators. There was just a lot of discussion then, I wasn’t here, they really just wanted to know someone cared and it mattered what happened at Bear Lake.
Larsen: Their strategy at that time, during the dredging, was a lawsuit.
Cottle: That brought the power company and irrigators to the table. It was pretty heated and embattled.
They finally came up with a settlement, it’s called the Bear Lake Settlement Agreement. It’s been praised as the best thing that happened on the river. It was an agreement that irrigators would use less water than contracts were as lake went down and there would be more of a model made, more transparency for when the water was used and how much was taken out.
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Larsen: if you had it your way, would you put the Bear River back in its channel?
Cottle: Well that would be the ultimate. That would be great.
I don’t think we’re going to stop using Bear Lake as a reservoir, it’s too valuable now. But if we’re going to keep using it, maybe we should restore the marsh.
Larsen: Ben and I have a lot of experience working at Great Salt Lake. The advocates have concerns that it’s going to shrink and dry up. Obviously Bear Lake is deep enough that it’s not going to dry up. What’s was the concern when they formed Bear Lake Watch?
Cottle: The lake has functions, some for people and a lot for fish. We have four endemics, so we’d be in really bad shape if our endemic fish got listed. They need the functions of Bear Lake in a more full (state), or at least full more often. And there’s impacts to having the lake used the way it is, it’s not about volume, obviously. We’ve got a lot of water here. It’s where the water is and when.
When it’s here for just a month in the spring, that’s just long enough to bring the sediment up, dump it on the shoreline and then leave.
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.