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Southeastern Idaho irrigators and community leaders appear united behind the need to develop unallocated water in the Bear River, but there is no consensus yet on how or where to proceed.

On Friday, the 12-member Bear River Task Force created by the 1989 Legislature met to hear public comment on a proposed Soda Springs dam site on the river. The 40,000-acre-foot Caribou project would cost an estimated $22 million.The panel must submit an interim report to Gov. Cecil Andrus by Jan. 5 and a final report to the Legislature by the end of next year.

Besides Soda Springs, several other locations have been considered by the task force as possible dam sites. Among them are Rocky Point southeast of Montpelier, Smith's Fork northeast of Cokeville, Wyo., and the Oneida Narrows section of the river in Franklin County.

Upstream water users prefer a storage facility in the heart of southeastern Idaho. They say it would provide flood control, reduce pollution in Bear Lake and maximize development opportunities in Idaho.

But downstream users have been concentrating on locations closer to Utah. In fact, the Utah Legislature created a similar task force to study the feasibility of building a dam at Oneida Narrows. The water would be diverted to Wasatch Front communities, which experts predict will need additional supplies by the turn of the century.

Utah Power & Light Co. officials have said irrigators alone cannot afford to build a dam, so it will have to be jointly funded by municipal, industrial and recreational users. UP&L also has expressed an interest in participating in a project.

The arching, 440-mile Bear River is the longest stream in North America that does not flow into an ocean. It originates high in the Uinta Mountains of Utah, meanders north through southwestern Wyoming and southeastern Idaho before circling back south and emptying into the Great Salt Lake.

At Friday's hearing, Don Gilbert, president of Last Chance Canal Co., said he did not know how much money area irrigators could contribute to a dam project south of Soda Springs. But he said they certainly will need water for future agricultural development.

"I think there is a lot of interest in the Caribou site," Gilbert said. "It just needs to be promoted."

Soda Springs Mayor Kirk Hansen also supported the project. He said construction of a reservoir nearby would benefit his community by allowing agricultural and industrial expansion, and stimulate the economy by creating recreational opportunities.

"I think we need to give it our top priority," he said.

Members of the Bear River Task Force include state Auditor J.D. Williams, who also is a member of the Idaho Water Resource Board; and Keith Higginson, director of the Department Water Resources. Also included are four southeastern Idaho legislators, a UP&L hydrologist, a representative of the North Extension Canal Co. and officials from Oneida, Franklin, Bear Lake and Caribou counties.