Great Salt Lake's fate largely turns on three rivers that flow out of the Wasatch and Uinta mountains. But as population booms along the Wasatch Front and water-use rates remain among the highest in the nation, development pressure is mounting on the Bear, Weber and Jordan rivers, which together provide about 70 percent of Great Salt Lake's freshwater inflows.
Activists recently declared victory in a fight against dams on the Bear River, and they're pushing for stricter water conservation and a drastic change in thinking about how water is used along the Wasatch Front. But the future seems certain to hold more challenges in keeping rivers running to the lake.
"It's going to be fights and fights and fights," says Zachary Frankel, head of the Utah Rivers Council and a longtime champion of the Bear River.
In 1991, the Bear River Development Act targeted the river for six dams and a whopping 220,000 acre-feet of water development. That touched off a battle, spearheaded by Indian, agriculture and environmental interests, concerning the dams' impacts on the river and the 74,000-acre Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on Great Salt Lake's northeastern shore (HCN, 7/3/00: Utah's river kid takes on the water buffaloes). Conservation groups such as the Utah Rivers Council warned that new dams on the Bear could drop the lake's level anywhere from one to six feet and starve the refuge of the water it needs to harbor birds.
The activists' push convinced Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to sign a bill in February that removes the two most promising dam sites on the Bear River from future consideration.
"There are still four other dams on the books," says Frankel. "But this is a huge victory because these are the two most actively proposed dam sites for the last 10 years."
Beyond the Bear
Political realignments beyond the Great Salt Lake watershed may bring new water to the basin, buying even more time for the Bear.
The Central Utah Project (CUP), first proposed in 1951 as part of the Bureau of Reclamation's last big dam-building push on the Colorado River, harnesses water from the upper Colorado River Basin and brings it west for use on the Wasatch Front. Over time, CUP has gone through a chameleon-like series of reconfigurations and has shrunk dramatically. In 1992, Congress turned the CUP over to the Central Utah Water Conservancy District (CUWCD); since then, the project, whose original beneficiaries were supposed to be farmers, has been reworked for the benefit of the urban Wasatch Front.
One big shot of water is on its way from Strawberry Reservoir via the Diamond Fork System; more may soon be available. In 1998, the CUCWD scrapped a project to send water south to Juab County for irrigation. This February, the District announced plans to bring that water north, toward the Wasatch Front, instead. Now, an additional 70,000 acre-feet of water up for grabs.
How the water is divvied up may be tempered by lingering discontent - and lawsuits - from agricultural interests, but the Salt Lake Valley cities have a good shot at most of the available water.
"It's going to buy a whole new era for us," says veteran water observer Daniel McCool, director of the University of Utah's American West Center. "It certainly places any discussion of the Bear River project far into the future."
But the pressure to supply Salt Lake City and its growing suburbs with water won't go away.
The Utah Division of Water Resources has considered simply siphoning about 75,000 acre-feet of Bear River water into the Willard Bay Reservoir, north of the lake, for use in urban Salt Lake and Davis counties. Although a diversion won't have as big an impact on the lake as the dams and a full 220,000 acre-foot depletion, its effects would still be significant.
Wasatch Front cities are also looking at Great Salt Lake's other feeder rivers. The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, which supplies water to cities such as Sandy and West Jordan, is in the process of buying up 50,000-70,000 acre-feet of agricultural rights to notoriously dirty Jordan River water. But the district won't use that water, says general manager David Ovard. Instead, it plans to ask the state engineer to approve permit changes that would allow the district to pump an equivalent amount of cleaner water out of the shallow aquifer that partially feeds the river.
Environmentalists like Great Salt Lake Audubon president Mary Gracia worry that pumping nearby groundwater will actually suck water out of the river, drying up wetlands and reducing inflows to Great Salt Lake.
"Nobody is saying, 'We need to look at streamflows; what does wildlife require?' " says Gracia. "They're just looking at people numbers."
Ovard says that the district doesn't want to pump the river dry; in fact, he says, he's trying to engage environmental groups' help in drafting a pumping plan.
In the long run, groups like Great Salt Lake Audubon and Utah Rivers Council are working to bring about a shift in thinking that will take Great Salt Lake's ecological needs into account and move away from what McCool calls "an infinite growth model applied to a very finite resource."
Already, says Frankel, "The small-town mindset of Utah is smashing up against the urban reality that we are a giant suburb."
Matt Jenkins is assistant editor for High Country News.