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Outside the northern Utah town of Tremonton, undeveloped lands sit against the West Hills, rolling out toward Idaho. In the coming decades, these hills may also harbor one of Utah’s largest reservoirs, filling a place called Whites Valley with water that would feed urban growth along the Wasatch Front.
Whites Valley is shaping up to be the linchpin of Utah’s massive proposed Bear River Water Development Project, which would store as much as 220,000 acre-feet of water a year for four northern Utah water districts.
Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, highlighted this component of the billion-dollar-plus project earlier this month before a legislative appropriations subcommittee.
The water won’t be needed for decades, but the division is laying the groundwork for planning and acquisition of land and rights of way. When the project was initially authorized by the Legislature in 1991, it was assumed the water would be needed by 2015.
“But because of water conservation efforts, reducing our water use, implementing secondary meters [on untreated water used for landscaping], that need has been pushed off to 2050,” Hasenyager said. “There is definitely a phasing need. The whole complete project is not needed at 2050. That’s when the need starts appearing.”
Environmentalists and other critics contend the project would not only be a fiscal drag on the water districts receiving the water and that it would threaten the Great Salt Lake. These massive water diversions would never be needed if Utah got more aggressive about reducing water use and smarter about managing its water resources, according to Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.
“Bear River Development is a welfare project for water lobbyists and contractors. There is no need for Bear River water on the Wasatch Front. Period,” Frankel said. “We are such wasteful secondary water users. We don’t even have any idea how much water people are using, much less making sure they’re paying appropriately for it.”
The state has only just begun installing meters on the secondary water systems in northern Utah, and officials plan to step up these efforts using federal infrastructure grants. Currently, residents and businesses pay a flat annual rate for secondary water they apply to their landscaping, and most have no idea how much they use. Studies show that Utah residents cut their use of secondary water by 20 to 30% if they are simply informed how much they use.
That suggests water needs would plummet if secondary water were always metered and users were required to pay a rate tied to their level of use, Frankel argued.
The Bear River flows off the north slope of the Uinta Mountains, weaves north in and out of Utah and Wyoming and into Idaho, before making a horseshoe turn back into Utah where it empties into the Great Salt Lake.
Critics say the water project would pound the final nail into the lake’s coffin as it continues shriveling into a puddle of its former self, thanks to climate change and unrelenting diversions in the Provo and Weber watersheds.
The project would impound up to three-fourths of the flows of Bear River, the Great Salt Lake’s primary source of inflows.
“The future of the Great Salt Lake is at stake with Whites Valley and Bear River Development, alongside Utah’s breadbasket of farms and ranches. Each of them have a cascade of impacts to northern Utah that will reverberate across generations,” Frankel said.
The Division of Water Resources has studied 46 locations for potential reservoirs for the Bear River project, and Whites Valley rose to the top among the six sites now under consideration. It is also the largest and most likely reservoir to be developed. The other five sites are Above Cutler, Cub River, Temple Fork, Fielding and South Willard. The water would go to the Jordan Valley, Weber Basin, Cache and Bear River water districts, which would share the costs, estimated to range between $1 billion and $2 billion. This price tag does not include contingency, engineering, legal or administrative costs.
A 2019 feasibility study examined 13 scenarios with different reservoir combinations. Whites Valley is featured in all but one, and in two scenarios it is the only reservoir.
But the site is not even on the Bear River or a significant tributary.
The water would be pumped out of the river from the potential Fielding Reservoir or a nearby diversion structure. Then it would be pumped 18 miles into the West Hills, gaining 1,000 vertical feet.
The 10-foot-diameter pipeline would be engineered to run water in both directions. A hydropower generator would be installed to recover the energy created on the downhill run.
While it may add construction and operation costs, that distant location holds many advantages over the other sites, according to the feasibility study completed by the consultant Bowen Collins & Associates.
The land is undeveloped and less expensive to acquire; the environmental impacts would not be as severe; and the site can accommodate dams of different sizes depending on the needs of the project. A reservoir here would also make for prime water recreation and wildlife habitat, the study says.
The land is currently private, costing about $1,500 an acre to acquire, totaling up to $6.8 million. The state would need to purchase 29 private parcels covering up to 4,538 acres to accommodate the reservoir. This land would exceed the reservoir’s footprint by 25% to accommodate recreational use around the shore and a development buffer.
The land is currently used for farming wheat on the valley bottom, with grasslands and sagebrush on the slopes.
How much land the state would need to buy would depend on how large the reservoir would be. Possibilities range from 170,000 acre-feet, or slightly larger than Deer Creek Reservoir next to Heber, to 610,000 acre-feet, or twice the size of Starvation Reservoir. It would likely wind up being the second-largest reservoir wholly within Utah, behind only Strawberry Reservoir.
The reservoir’s size depends on the Bear River development scenario selected by the state.
—To achieve 170,000 acre-feet of storage, the surface area of the reservoir would be 2,100 acres and it would sit behind a 227-foot earth-core rock-fill dam.
—For 400,000 acre-feet, the surface area would be 3,060 acres behind a 320-foot dam.
—For 540,000 acre-feet, the surface area would be 3,500 acres behind a 362-foot dam, spanning a half-mile and requiring 16 to 18 million cubic yards of fill.
The water division claims the 80% of the water supplied to consumers would wind up in the Great Salt Lake as “return flows.” This is because so much of the water is expected to be used for indoor use, as opposed to irrigation, according to the feasibility study, which said the project would only deplete the lake’s inflows by 86,000 acre-feet. The plans say the reservoir would drop the lake’s surface by only 8.5 to 14 inches, depending on the lake’s level.
Frankel laughed at the state’s rosy assessment.
“Pure junk science. It’s propaganda,” he said, arguing the drop in elevation would be more in the order of 2 to 4 feet.
“That’s what our study of the science says. There’s no question about that,” Frankel said. “That will not only create an air quality disaster, it will shrink wetlands and dry up feeding habitat for the brine shrimp industry. It’s going to devastate the Great Salt Lake.”