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A local citizens group at Bear Lake plans to sue the Army Corps of Engineers for giving Utah's largest electric utility permission to dredge the lake's north end.

Utah Power has not dredged the lake near its power station since it received the go-ahead two years ago. But the Water Fund of the Rockies accuses the Corps of failing to have the utility obtain the necessary permit to lower the lake's level."Federal agencies are neglecting their duty to protect a jewel of a resource," said fund attorney Randall Weiner, who on Monday sent the Corps the required 60-day advance notice for filing a federal suit on behalf of Bear Lake Watch, a citizens group formed to protect the lake.

"Bear Lake is a treasure which is being damaged due to possible unlawful government and industry activities," said the group's president, Merlin Olsen. "If we don't reverse the process soon, Bear Lake may never recover."

But the Corps said Utah Power does have a permit, it's just not the one protesters want it to have.

Ray Kagel, with the Corps office in Idaho Falls, said that following an environmental review the utility was issued a section 10 permit in 1992 to dredge a four-foot-deep, 2,000-foot-long channel near its pumping station.

The permit was sought at the tail end of a seven-year drought that drained the northern Utah-southern Idaho lake to records low levels. Utah Power is obligated to deliver a set amount of water to downstream farmers and the utility feared dredging would be necessary to increase flows from the lake and honor their obligation.

Because of the duty to downstream farmers, Utah Power was exempt from obtaining a more stringent section 404 permit, said Kagel.

But Weiner, who contends the utility must obtain the 404 permit, said the dredging is for generating electricity, not irrigating fields.

"Congress made it clear when it discussed the farm irrigation exemption that it applied to family farmers, not hydroelectric power companies," he said. "All the case law refutes the notion that federal laws can be ignored in the process of draining Bear Lake."

An exceptionally wet year in 1993 made the dredging unnecessary, Utah Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said.

But this year's meager snowpack and rainfall has prompted a request by the utility that irrigators conserve as much as possible this season. Unless next winter dumps an abnormally high amount of snow in the Bear River watershed, water allocations next year will be severely restricted, said Utah Power hydrologist Carly Burton.