Open Lands: Chasing a rumor that Utah wants to build another dam

Experts have said a dam on the Bear River might be enough to kill Great Salt Lake.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A moose crosses the Bear River as it flows 550 miles upstream from the Great Salt Lake on Oct. 5, 2022.

Editor‘s note • The following is an excerpt from the Salt Lake Tribune’s new Open Lands newsletter, a twice-a-month newsletter about Utah’s land, water and air from the environment team. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on and news we’re following, sign up to have Open Lands delivered to your inbox.

If you regularly follow news about the Great Salt Lake, you may have heard a rumor that a dam is imminent on the lake’s largest tributary, the Bear River.

It all started when Grow the Flow, an initiative meant to drum up more support for the lake, issued an emergency news release last month. It claimed a “behind-the-scenes effort” to purchase land in Box Elder County’s Whites Valley in order to build a reservoir that’s part of the Bear River Development.

As a refresher, the Bear River Development is a state-sponsored plan to store 220,000 acre-feet and support growth in northern Utah. On the conservative end, it could drop the Great Salt Lake by another 8.5 inches and expose another 30 square miles of lakebed. That’s bad because more exposed lakebed means more dangerous blowing dust.

It’s worth noting that it would take at least two decades to clear all the hurdles, like engineering plans and federal environmental reviews, before a new dam can even get built. But Grow the Flow contends buying land for a damsite could imply the state’s priority is still water development, not rescuing the Great Salt Lake.

The Bear River Development has been on the books since the 1990s, when Utahns had just finished grappling with floods and a surplus of water. But it kept getting pushed off as drought returned, then persisted, and Utahns’ stepped up their conservation habits. These days, with the lake dwindling to record lows and drumming up worldwide concern, support for the project has all but dried up.

Chasing a rumor

So it came as a shock to many that a reservoir site in Box Elder may be forthcoming.

I’ve tried to confirm whether the rumor is true. Grow the Flow is protecting its source. And most of the sources I tried tapping have only heard about it second- or third-hand.

I also spoke with Marisa Egbert, the state’s Bear River Development Manager, and a spokesperson with the Division of Water Resources. That agency manages the project and the taxpayer funds that would be used to buy up a reservoir site. They insisted they know nothing about an impending land purchase for a dam.

I then filed records requests with Weber Basin Water Conservancy District and Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, the two water providers who would likely benefit most from the project, for any recent communication involving anything to do with a reservoir. Those requests came up with nada.

Finally, I had a frank conversation with Scott Paxman, Weber Basin’s general manager.

Paxman confirmed he did have a conversation with lawmakers, although he wouldn’t say which ones, about the possibility of buying up land for a reservoir.

“Honestly, it did not go anywhere,” Paxman told me. “There’s nothing imminent about buying property on the Bear River.”

The prolonged, multi-year drought that helped bring the Great Salt Lake to the brink in recent years also had water managers in northern Utah panicking. Weber Basin’s reservoirs were sapped, and the district enacted its toughest restrictions on record. Paxman worried water supplies that support communities in Box Elder, Weber and Davis counties would run dry.

And with the state being sued by environmental groups over the Great Salt Lake, he added, the lawmakers he spoke with ultimately figured it wouldn’t be “wise” to proceed.

Where Utah is running dry

Paxman noted the state is going to have to do something, however, about growing communities up north. When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation funded all the big dam projects in Utah, including the Central Utah Project that imports Colorado River water to the Wasatch Front, it was mostly thinking about cities in Salt Lake and Utah counties, Paxman said.

That was decades ago. Now, northern Utah, too, has since seen booming growth, but it still has a less secure water supply.

“They divert a significant amount of water from the Weber River to the Provo side” as well, Paxman said.

Paxman had to ask Central Utah Water District to sell some of that Weber water back in 2022 because things were so dire. It cost northern water users around $6 million.

Former Rep. Timothy Hawkes pointed out the stark divide between water users on the north and south ends of the Wasatch Front during a panel about the Bear River Development that Grow the Flow hosted last month.

Hawkes said in the summer of last year, he could tell which county he was in based on how green the lawns were.

“In the Central Utah Project, they were still watering like there was no tomorrow because they had all the storage,” Hawkes said.

Meanwhile, in northern counties like Weber and Davis, residents had to let their lawns turn brown.

Instead of more dams in the Great Salt Lake basin which has no water to spare, Hawkes suggested Utahns look at building a different type of infrastructure: pipelines that more fairly distribute the water we’ve already developed.

“Is this truly a public utility?” Hawkes asked. “If so, then we need to treat it as such. We can’t afford to have ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’”