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If the drought continues another year, Bear Lake will drop so low that in nearly 150,000 acres of farmland in Utah and Idaho.

That was the prediction of Carly Burton, hydrological supervisor for Utah Power, which operates a hydropower and irrigation system using Bear Lake water. Utah Power has exclusive water rights on Bear Lake for these purposes."If this drought continues in the severity we've had this year, then the lake will drop to the historic low by fall of next year," Burton told the Utah Resource Development Coordinating Committee in the Capitol Tuesday.

Burton said the lake's level is presently at 5,905.8 feet above sea level, with the historic low at 5,902 feet.

"This year may in fact exceed 1934 as the driest year in history" for Bear Lake. This is the sixth year of drought.

The historic low was reached in 1935, during the drought of the '30s. That 5,902 level is important for two reasons:

- Utah Power is legally forbidden from pumping below that level, because its water rights are limited to water above that and Idaho has placed a moratorium on more water rights from the lake.

- The company's pumps near St. Charles, Idaho, were built to use water down to 5,902 feet and can'treach deeper without expensive and difficult rebuilding.

This year, the water level dropped so low that Utah Power had to shut off pumping on Sept. 2. By Sept. 4, the effect of the shutoff reached the Utah Power hydro plants downstream, and the company had to close the generating plants.

That was an unprecedented move. When all six plants are operating, they produce 115 megawatts of electricity.

Burton said these are "extreme conditions that have never been experienced before."

Counting all the water at Utah Power's disposal to the bottom of the usable storage - to the 5,902 level - the company still has 230,000 acre-feet. The lake should hit its low point for the year in October and then head back up as winter precipitation flows in.

So far in 1992, Bear Lake has lost 115,000 acre-feet to evaporation. That was more than was brought in during the scanty spring runoff.

"We reduced irrigation allocations this year (to irrigators) below Bear Lake for the first time in history," Burton said. The company expects that next year, too, it will have to ask irrigators to take less water than usual.

He appeared before the committee seeking approval for a project to deepen a canal within the lake, dredged long ago to assure that water flows to the pumps on shore. Few if any environmental impacts are expected from the project.

Fish in Bear Lake won't be harmed by the dip in water level, because even at the historic low point, the lake will retain 5.1 million acre-feet.

But low water could cause some problems for farmers. Bear Lake water pumped by Utah Power is used to irrigate 65,000 acres in Box Elder County, 35,000 acres in Cache County and 50,000 acres in Idaho.

Utah Power has contracts to supply water to five main irrigation companies and 90 smaller companies and individuals.

Utah Power doesn't want to deepen the canal simply because it needs water to generate power. Once the lake drops to a certain level, the company is precluded from using any more water than needed by the irrigation companies.

"We're doing this to fulfill our contract obligations," Burton told the Deseret News. The company's contract with the Bear River Canal Co., the largest irrigator that it supplies, dates to 1912.

Utah Power believes Bear Lake contains enough water to supply irrigation needs next year, after it resumes pumping in the spring.

But if the drought continues through 1993, does that mean there would be no water pumped from Bear Lake the following year? "That is a good possibility," Burton said. He added that farmers in the area could use their water rights from the natural stream flow from Bear River.

Normally, the lake water supplies about one-third of the water needs of the area's farmers. But, Burton said, "the drier the year is, the more they depend on the Bear Lake water."

In a dry year, about two-thirds of the water is supplied by Bear Lake, since the Bear River's flow is lower than normal.

If farmers forecast a great reduction in water for 1994, Burton said, they can plan to use crops that don't need as much water, such as grains.

Presently, they plant grains, plus water-intense crops like corn, beans, alfalfa and potatoes.

"It wouldn't mean that they're totally out of business," he said. "They would just need to plant some low water-requiring crops."

David Styer of the Bear River Canal Co., Tremonton, Box Elder County, said if dredging doesn't take place so that water flows to the pumps, irrigators will have only as third as much water as they'll need in 1993.

"That'll be a disaster for the farmers of Utah and Idaho . . . It'll be a disaster all along the river, ecologically," he said.

Migratory bird refuges and fisheries that depend on sufficient water flowing along Bear River would suffer badly by reduced flows, he said.


(Additional information)

If you can launch your boat . . .

Norm Stauffer, the Utah Division of Water Resources' chief of hydrology, said problems with recreation on Bear Lake aren't the result of low water volume or reduced surface area. Plenty of water remains in the lake, and the surface is only 15 percent smaller than when the lake level is at its highest.

Recreation problems stem from the difficulty of launching boats when marinas and other facilities are left virtually high and dry.