Publicly, homeowners along Bear Lake have nothing good to say about the prolonged drought that has gradually pulled the shoreline of this turquoise lake farther and farther away from their beach-front homes.
But privately they know that seven years of dry weather has positioned them well to have some clout when it comes to sharing the Bear River, which waters Bear Lake as well as the land of southern Idaho and northern Utah."Few people realize the blessing this could be," said Bryce Nielson, honorable mayor of Garden City, a resort town on the western shore of this huge lake that straddles the Utah-Idaho border.
Any doubts that Bear Lake homeowners are a force to be reckoned with in regional water politics vanished at the "Bear Lake Summit" here Wednesday. Homeowners accounted for more than half of those attending the all-day confab on issues surrounding the lake and nearby river.
"Anyone who threatens storage on the lake has to be taken seriously," said Riverside farmer Richard Capener, following the conference.
"They (homeowners) want a voice in everything now," added Corinne farmer Milt Norman, shortly before he and Capener drove off in a metallic blue Cadillac and white New Yorker along with several other Box Elder County irrigators who hold senior water rights to the Bear River.
For more than a century, farmers and Utah Power's hydroelectric plants controlled the river and Bear Lake's shoreline. Through dry and wet cycles, Utah Power pumped water stored in Bear Lake to farmers and hydro-electric dams downstream. Tiny communities surrounding the lake had no rights to Bear River water stored in the lake, so their complaints - if there were any - about the fluctuating shoreline were largely ignored.
But two things happened in the 1980s that could change future water management in the region. First, the wettest three-year cycle in the Bear River basin's history was followed by a six-year drought. During that same time, the lake has experienced 50 percent growth in building and development in some areas. The new-comers, alarmed by the impact the power company and farmers had on their real-estate investment, were retired biologists, lawyers, government bureaucrats and even professional football star Merlin Olsen. In other words, people with the confidence and know-how to work the political and legal systems and get their way.
Last week, a homeowners group that has Olsen as its spokesman put the federal government on notice that it would sue the Army Corps of Engineers for permitting Utah Power to dredge and drain more water out of the lake if the drought persists next year.
It was also a public notice that Bear Lake homeowners expect to be players when the Bear River Compact is renegotiated in 1998. The compact is an interstate agreement that allocates the water among users in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. It was first ratified by Congress in 1958 when power generation and agriculture were the chief players.
"The homeowners are a sleeping giant that has been awakened with this summit as well as the lawsuit," said Randall Weiner, attorney with the Land and Water Fund, which filed the suit on behalf of Bear Lake Watch and is searching for permanent legal counsel for Bear Lake residents.
Forseeing an expensive and protracted legal battle with the still-powerful irrigators and govern-ment agencies, commissioners in Rich County, Utah and Bear Lake County, Idaho, convened this week's summit to hear out all the parties. "It's incumbent upon us to solve the problems in our jurisdiction," said Bear Lake County Commissioner Ron Law.
He split the 175 attendees into various groups and asked them to list their concerns and mark those on which they could compromise. "We want to find a consensus and approach our congressional delegations and the federal agencies with an action plan," Law said.
While everyone attending praised the summit as a first step in cooperation among Bear River farmers and Bear Lake homeowners, they also recognized it as an opportunity to size up the opposition.
"A lot of this is posturing," Nielson acknowledged. "But if we can come to agreement before the compact is reopened, it could avoid expensive legal battles."