All along the Bear River, there is evidence of Western resilience. In the face of daunting water challenges in Utah and neighboring states, ranchers, environmentalists, and staff from state and federal agencies are coming together to protect ranches and communities, while bolstering the long-term health of the river.
The Bear is home to the charismatic Bonneville cutthroat trout, Utah’s state fish, and is the largest source of fresh water for the Great Salt Lake. We recently organized a tour that traced most of the river, from its headwaters in the Uinta Mountains, into Wyoming and Idaho, then back to Utah and the Lake.
We visited places where temporary dams had previously been put up each spring so water right holders could withdraw their allocations. When installed, these structures raised the river level to divert water to an irrigation ditch. Many have accessed water this way for generations, but there are problems: These dams block fish passage, change river dynamics, can waste water and are expensive, time-consuming and sometimes dangerous to build.
At more than a dozen sites, we saw alternatives to dams that are better for ranchers and the river.
At his ranch south of Evanston, Wyoming, Wade Lowham no longer relies on push-up dams. (These were made when heavy equipment pushed streambed gravel into a large pile.) In 2018, a collaborative project recontoured the river channel on his ranch to maintain a natural flow at a slightly higher elevation. He now accesses his water by opening a simple headgate. He saves time and money, and fish pass unobstructed.
North of Evanston, Shaun Sims previously used concrete blocks, rock and other materials to stabilize banks and protect his pasture, and annually built push-up dams to draw water for irrigation – all at significant cost. That is changing, with work funded by multiple agencies. He now accesses his water from a headgate, and crews are restoring safer and more natural bends in the river. His new headgate system held up in 2019′s high flows.
Outside Montpellier, Idaho, Rancher Sean Bartschi showed us a dam built by his grandfather and a creek that was channelized to allow for more efficient land use. A multi-year project will maximize the efficiency of his pivot irrigation system. It will remove both the dam and channel because a meandering creek helps groundwater recharge — increasing soil moisture across the full pasture. It’s better for frogs, ducks, and other wildlife — which Sean is quick to point out. He doesn’t judge past practices, but knows water is increasingly precious and wants to get the most of every drop.
The projects we visited — all of them voluntary — each started with questions, conversation and brainstorming between a landowner and a state fish and wildlife agency, federal resource agency or nonprofit partner. Trout Unlimited (TU) started several by asking ranchers what they need to make their ranch more efficient. They listened. They built trust. When the time was right, they brought in staff from state or federal agencies to navigate permitting processes.
The trust and common understanding are obvious. At one stop, we heard TU staff talk about the rancher’s need for a more reliable water diversion while the rancher talked of how beavers help restore streams — each told the other’s story. Our two groups — Resources Legacy Fund and Western Native Trout Initiative — work across the American West providing funds and services for multi-benefit projects like these. Some of the best work we’ve seen is here.
With prolonged drought, Westerners must retool our water infrastructure. Bear River ranchers are showing the way. They are open to new approaches willing to partner, and are building more efficient operations. Under difficult circumstances, they’re providing inspiration.
Shara Sparks is a program officer at Resources Legacy Fund, which implements the Open Rivers Fund.
Therese Thompson is coordinator of the Western Native Trout Initiative.