Bear River pipeline no longer an option to aid in northern Utah growth

One of Utah’s top lawmakers said the state shouldn’t follow the plan while he and another state legislator talked about how the Legislature has ‘fundamentally reshaped things’ to help save the Great Salt Lake.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bear River flows into the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

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One of the leaders of the Utah Legislature is putting to rest rumors about a reservoir on the Bear River.

“The current Bear River pipeline that’s on the books isn’t likely to happen and probably shouldn’t happen,” Utah House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told a group gathered Wednesday for the first day of the biennial Great Salt Lake Issues Forum.

Schultz and Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, talked about progress on policies related to saving the Great Salt Lake and how the Legislature has “fundamentally reshaped things.”

Schultz’s comments on the pipeline came months after rumors that a dam and reservoir were imminent as part of the Bear River Development.

That development is a state-sponsored plan to store 220,000 acre-feet and support growth in northern Utah. Conservative estimates say it could drop the Great Salt Lake by 8.5 inches, exposing 30 square miles of lakebed and more dangerous dust.

Several state and water district employees told The Tribune late last year that a rumor about a reservoir site in Box Elder County had no legs. Schultz spoke with FOX 13 about the rumors around that time and said it would not move forward as-is.

His comments Wednesday confirmed that as he and Snider expressed optimism about the Great Salt Lake’s future.

Schultz recalled flooding in the 1980s that meant the lake “literally was in the backyards” of neighbors in Hooper, and pointed out it came about two decades after the previous record for low water levels.

The lake goes through cycles, he said, and water levels ebb and flow. The difference now is the state cares a lot more about the environment now than it did in the 1960s, Schultz said.

Schultz touted successes on Capitol Hill in recent legislative sessions, and Snider said the state has “all of the big pieces in place to make significant differences in the lake.”

Snider specifically cited provisions allowing leases of water and “certainty at the bottom level of the lake level as it amounts to evaporation and extraction.”

Snider warned lawmakers may need to “play defense” against communities that want to reuse treated wastewater instead of sending it to the Great Salt Lake.

He acknowledged that the Legislature’s new policies have not pleased everyone, and criticized some Utahns for what they have done while the Legislature has tried to “shift big policy items.”

Snider called out environmental groups that have filed lawsuits, and demonstrators who have played “When the Saints Go Marching In” outside the speaker’s office and danced while wearing giant bird heads — which were a regular spectacle during this year’s legislative session.

Wednesday’s session was interrupted not long after by someone dancing around the room wearing a phalarope head.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eco-performance artists Sarah Ann Woodbury, left, and Bryn Watkins, representing a Wilson's phalarope, perform at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, March 28, 2024, as they join other advocates for a healthy Great Salt Lake and an threatened species act listing petition for the inland shorebird.

A senior attorney with Earth Justice, the group involved with the public trust lawsuit, said Utah hasn’t offered “meaningful solutions to address the lake’s water crisis and comply with its legal obligations.”

Public trust doctrine requires the state to address water use imperiling the Great Salt Lake and other trust resources, said Stu Gillespie, a senior attorney with the organization’s Rocky Mountain office. Gillespie added that three dozen “respected law professors” agree with Earth Justice that the state hasn’t done so.

”Until Utah gets serious about addressing upstream water diversions, the lake and all that depends on it will remain at risk,” he said.

Instead of demonstrations and lawsuits, Snider urged people to donate to the Great Salt Lake Trust, work with local communities that have surplus water to get it to the lake, and support agriculture as it shifts to a new product line by shopping at farmers markets.

Utah leaders do have more work to do, he said. The state needs “a far more robust way” to deliver on promises and measure progress, including real-time monitoring of the water level, he said.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.