« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Tribe hopes to dam its way to jobs


For decades, the Uinta Mountains have been seen as a watering can for swelling suburbs and thirsty croplands in northern Utah. Under the Central Utah Project (CUP), a massive, 40-year effort to capture Utah's share of Colorado River Basin water, snowmelt from the Uintas has been dammed, plumbed and piped to cities along the Wasatch Front (HCN, 7/15/91).

Now, the final pieces of the CUP promise to store some water for the Uintah Basin, an economically depressed land of farms, ranches, natural-gas wells, oil rigs and struggling tar sands developments. But environmentalists say dam proposals on the Uinta River and Yellowstone Creek are unnecessary and will leave endangered fish high and dry.

"It's ridiculous," says Dick Carter, director of the High Uintas Preservation Council. "It's the same damn approach: Put dams on rivers. We don't need any more reservoirs on any more rivers."

Priced together at $240 million, the two dams would store more than 40,000 acre-feet of water. Each reservoir would drown more than two miles of free-flowing stream.

About half the water, 22,000 acre-feet per year, is destined for the Ute Indians on the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation. Indian development money would cover 65 percent of the $35 million local cost share.

"The dams are very important to our future," says Ron Wopsock, chairman of the Ute Business Council, the governing body of the 3,500-member tribe. Only 600 Ute tribal members have jobs, and many of those that do make just enough to scrape by, he says.

Construction of the dams, a six-year project, would provide 46 tribal members with full-time jobs, according to the water conservancy district. The tribe is also banking on leasing the water to industry, agriculture or to cities, says Wopsock.

"We've already taken a lot of water out of (the Uintah Basin)" and diverted it to the Wasatch Front, says Terry Holzworth, project manager for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, which oversees the CUP. The new projects aim to make up for those diversions, he says.

Zachary Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council, a Salt Lake City-based conservation group, says the dams will bash the rivers more than they will ever boost the economy. The project "will provide water to a couple hundred irrigators at the expense of taxpayers, free-flowing rivers and endangered species," he says.

Both the Uinta River and Yellowstone Creek drain into the Duchesne (pronounced do-shane) River, a tributary of the Green River, which is home to four endangered fish species: the Colorado squawfish, the humpback chub, the bonytail sucker and the razorback sucker.

"The Green and its tributaries represent perhaps the most important riverine habitat left for rare and endangered fishes in the upper Colorado River Basin," says a preliminary draft biological opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have also expressed concern over the proposed dams.

Water district representative Gene Showcroft says a multistate pact known as the Recovery Implementa-tion Plan/Recovery Action Plan, or RIP/RAP, will prevent the project from harming endangered fish by restoring fish habitat elsewhere.

"How can they say that won't have an effect on the fish? It's a crock," says Frankel. "You can't divert a river, pay money into a fund and expect the fish to swim in money."

The $240 million, he says, would be better spent on conservation projects, which could provide as much as 25,000 acre-feet of additional water per year, and on finding long-term economic solutions for the Utes.

Dick Carter agrees there are better ways to satisfy Uintah Basin water needs, such as enhancing existing dams and diverting water to reservoirs that don't block the rivers. Still, he acknowledges that the dams are far smaller than those proposed under the original CUP. Also, as mitigation for the CUP, Central Utah Water Conservancy District officials are tearing out a number of smaller dams in the Uintas.

"No matter what happens," says Carter, these efforts at mitigation represent "the first time ever a positive thing will come out of the CUP."

The Central Utah Water Conservancy District is working on an environmental impact statement for the dams.

Brent Israelsen writes for the Salt Lake Tribune.

You can ...

* Call Zachary Frankel at the Utah Rivers Council at 801/486-4776, or,

* Call Gene Showcroft at the Central Utah Water Conservancy District at 801/226-7100.