Would dredging Utah Lake upset a century of peace over water rights?

Water managers are worried that a plan to dredge Utah Lake could compromise Wasatch Front water-users’ access to drinking water.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The historic Utah Lake Pump Station, at right, replaced in 2013 after over 100 years of service, is kept for historical preservation alongside the new pump station designed to transfer water to the Jordan River using four 200 cubic feet per second vertical propeller pumps. The unique siphon discharge technology from the original design, was preserved, pictured on Friday, March 18, 2022.

Saratoga Springs • At the head of the Jordan River, where it receives water from Utah Lake, a mighty pump station has stood for more than a century, once capable of raising water at nearly 1,000 cubic feet per second.

The masonry structure and its ancient pumps remain in place on the lake’s north shore as a reminder of Utahns’ herculean efforts to harness water, while its replacement, built a few feet away in 2012 at a cost of about $7 million, now does the heavy lifting needed to keep the peace in the Wasatch Front’s delicate water-sharing arrangements.

Should Utah Lake get dredged as proposed by a company hoping to build a network of artificial islands, this vital pump station would no longer function, jeopardizing Salt Lake County residents’ access to clean drinking water from Wasatch canyons, according to several water managers.

That’s because municipal water providers, such as Salt Lake City, have exchanged their rights to Utah Lake’s low-quality water for the pure snowmelt flowing from the canyons, although irrigators hold the senior rights to the melt, according to Mike DeVries, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy.

If these water providers can’t deliver Utah Lake water to irrigators, the municipalities would forfeit their access to water from the Cottonwood, Parleys and City Creek canyons. That’s a scenario water managers fear would unfold if Utah Lake is dredged.

A new pump

DeVries’ district is one of several water providers that make up the Utah Lake Water Users Association, which operates the pump station and related infrastructure downstream, such as the historic Turner Dam and diversion structures.

A disruption in the lake level, a likely outcome if the lake bed is altered, could drop the water below the reach of the station’s four pumps.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Water officials take a tour of the Utah Lake Pump Station used to transfer water to the Jordan River on Friday, March 18, 2022. Jason Luettinger, at left, is one of the engineers that helped build the new pump station built in 2013.

“They are known as high-volume, low-head pumps, meaning they are designed to pull up water very short vertical distances,” said DeVries during a recent tour of the facility with other water officials who share his concerns. “If we get to a situation where we’re limited as to how much water we have access to at various depths — in other words, we have to go deeper to get to the same volume that we’ve had access to historically — that basically means we have to redo the station.”

Lake Restoration Solutions (LRS), the company behind the dredging proposal, says it is fully aware of water users’ concerns and vows to work with them to design the project so it won’t impair their access to the lake.

Still, water managers suspect they would have no recourse but to replace the Utah Lake station’s pumps with an entirely different type, capable of raising water higher, and a canal would have to be dredged for miles into the lake to access deeper water.

“If this pump station or the lake can’t convey that water to meet the exchange, to replace water that goes to the most senior right, Salt Lake City is literally obligated to open hydrants on the city streets and run culinary water down to the ditches to meet those obligations,” said engineer Jason Luettinger. “It takes away the city’s drinking water today if this doesn’t pump.”

That is just one example of what could go wrong, according to John Mabey, the water users association’s lawyer. Because of the interlocking nature of various water agreements, the dredging project’s impacts would be felt miles up the Provo River and downstream all the way to the Great Salt Lake.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Perry Smith, superintendent of the Utah Lake Pump Station for the past 39 years, overlooks the four pumps each capable of pulling 220 cubic feet per second of water through vertical propeller pumps during a tour on Friday, March 18, 2022.

LRS has claimed that its project would increase Utah Lake’s storage capacity 40% or by an impressive 386,000 acre-feet. But that means nothing to the water providers that rely on the lake to service the needs of hundreds of thousands of Utahns.

According to its filings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead permitting agency for the project and its publicity materials, LRS claims the project would safeguard the existing water rights associated with the lake. However, nowhere do these documents explain how the dredging project would do it. That’s a big red flag for water managers.

Making the lake deeper doesn’t create usable water

Especially troubling is the filings’ failure to distinguish between how much of the added volume would be inactive storage, that is below the lake’s dead pool elevation.

“They are throwing out big numbers in terms of adding volume to this lake which we have seen no detail on, and there isn’t any evidence they’re going to be able to do that,” Luettinger said. “They’re telling the public they’re going to do all these beneficial things, but from an engineering standpoint, I don’t see it.”

Known as the Utah Lake Restoration Project, the plan is to reconfigure the topography of the 148-square-mile lake bed below 4,489 feet above sea level. That’s the lake’s “compromise” elevation set by the courts to settle a century’s worth of lawsuits. Currently about 10 feet deep on average at that elevation, the lake would be deepened by 7 feet and the dredged sediments would be shaped into 34 islands covering 18,000 acres.

Proponents claim the lake’s capacity would be greatly expanded, which no one disputes. What they don’t publicize is the fact that much of that expansion would contribute to inactive storage, which does nothing to bolster Utah’s water supply.

The water user groups have calculated that the project could actually reduce active storage by as much as 180,000 acre-feet, more than what is held upstream in the Deer Creek Reservoir.

“Water users for us are among the most important stakeholders in this whole project,” said LRS president Jon Benson in response to the water managers’ concerns.

“The water users have asked very good questions that are helping to inform the project design,” Benson said. “We’ve invested significant time and money into answering their questions, some of which are now fully answered, some of which require more analysis to resolve.”

LRS executives and their consultants say it’s premature to draw conclusions about the project’s impact on water rights, but they will invite the user groups to help design the project when the time comes.

“It would be nice if we could say, ‘Here’s how much we’re changing the active storage. Here’s how much for changing the inactive storage,’” said Rob Annear, an engineer with GeoSyntec Consultants. “But that’s a level of specificity that we don’t want to go to yet because we haven’t done the actual dredge prism design. We’ve heard their concerns and we are more than happy to talk to them another 42 times or whatever.”

The Legislature has lent support for the project in the 2018 Utah Lake Restoration Act, which authorizes the transfer of title to the islands if the project achieves certain objectives, including the preservation of water storage and water rights.

Benson noted that if his project can’t deliver on those promises, it cannot be approved, so guardrails are in place to protect existing water users’ vital interests.

Backers have launched a public relations campaign called Imagine Utah Lake, with billboards posted along Interstate 15, extolling the project’s benefits. One shows a person riding a JetSki over blue water free of the algal blooms that have long plagued the lake.

“The public sees these fancy billboards and advertisements and who doesn’t want a cleaner lake and all these great promises?” said Keith Denos, general manager of the Provo River Water Users Association. “But we need the hard data to really analyze it and see that it doesn’t adversely impact us.”

The posse that brought dynamite to a water fight

Projects that altered Utah Lake date all the way back to the 19th century, and they have always been colored by conflict, which sometimes resembled actual warfare.

In pioneer times, the lake was the largest single source of freshwater for hundreds of miles, so naturally, farmers downstream sought to harness its outflow via the Jordan River.

When the lake level rose during big spring runoffs, it sometimes inundated the eastern and northern shores, threatening farmers’ livelihoods. Utah Valley farmers wanted the lake to flow freely down the Jordan so it wouldn’t flood their land, while Salt Lake Valley farmers wanted to store spring runoff in Utah Lake for use in summer.

Some lakeside farmers erroneously blamed the flooding on the Turner Dam, a wooden structure first built in 1872 to divert water into canals for distribution in the Salt Lake Valley. Taking justice into their own hands, a horse-mounted posse dynamited the dam, according to Mabey, the water users association attorney.

Located 10 miles downstream at the Jordan Narrows, the wood-crib structure had no influence on lake elevation, but its destruction illustrates the lake’s importance to the Jordan and Provo rivers’ water-distribution system.

In the century since Turner Dam was blown to splinters, various court rulings and distribution plans have established a bench mark for the lake’s elevation, around which millions of dollars worth of infrastructure has been built, including the pump station, dams and miles of aqueducts.

According to Denos, Utah Lake serves as a linchpin in a vast water-distribution network. He fears the effect of the dredging project could reach upstream to Deer Creek Reservoir, operated by the Provo River Water Users Association, whose members serve about 1 million people.

“We have what’s called the high-flow water right on the Provo River, so everything downstream has to be satisfied before we can store those rights,” Denos said. “In order to store water from the Provo River, we have to make sure that Utah Lake is whole. We can’t intercept water that otherwise would go to fill the needs of those water users who have capacity rights in Utah Lake.”

If those Utah Lake water rights holders can’t access their water in the lake, the Provo River managers could be forced to forego water stored in those upstream reservoirs and release it downstream to bring up Utah Lake.

“We’re not here to bash the [dredging] project, but we have concerns about the analytical data that is lacking, specifics to back their claims,” DeVries said. “Right now, the public is getting fed all this information. And unfortunately, I don’t think they understand that there is a far more complex of questions at play here.”

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