In the early 1900s, farmers from Wasatch, Summit and Utah counties decided to dam off more than a dozen small Uinta Mountain lakes draining into the Provo River. The reservoirs would store spring runoff for late summer and fall irrigation."They would go up June 10, and the policy was no one shaved until Labor Day when they had to come back and help get the kids in school," said Cal Giles, who operates the reservoirs for the Union Reservoir Co.
Giles, who possesses the log book recording each day of the 20-year-plus construction project, rattles off the statistics detailing the scope of the sacrifice: 600 men, 300 teams of horses, 150 tents and 12 cook shacks.
"No fatalities as far as I can tell," he said.
It took the crews two days to reach the lakes. Today, it takes Giles about 90 minutes to travel from his Heber City home to one of the tiny lakes clustered on the west end of the Uinta range.
He turns the iron wheels atop the primitive rock and dirt dams, lifting the headgate and releasing water to shareholders of the Timpanogos Canal Co. or to Provo City. The reddish black rust on the Washington Lake headgate mechanism, mounted to rotting timbers, reveals the precarious state of the dams.
But only one of the barriers has failed. That wasn't until 1986 when Trial Lake dam broke. The ensuing flood scoured the river bed and washed away a section of highway. No lives were lost, and property damage for downstream cabin dwellers was minimal.
To prevent a possible catastophe and protect the river's headwaters, the Bureau of Reclamation launched the Uinta Mountains restoration project in 1991. Under the project, Trial Lake dam was rebuilt to modern safety standards for $1.7 million. Nearby Washington Lake is scheduled for a $1.3 million reconstruction this year. For the same price, Lost Lake will be reconstructed for additional storage.
For another $5 million, the barriers holding back water at the remaining 12 reservoirs - from tiny Pot Lake to the second largest of the group, Wall Lake - will be leveled to a stable depth and restored to their former mountain-lake status.
Water stored in the reservoirs targeted for demolition will run downstream into the Jordanelle Reservoir.
"We want the area returned to as natural a state as possible and the stabilized lakes to provide excellent fishing," said Melissa Blackwell, district forest ranger.
But Blackwell doesn't want to completely erase a period of history when early settlers first realized the potential of the Provo watering fields for cities miles downstream.
"We also want to leave part of the old masonry dams at Weir or Fire (lakes) and a narrative history of why they were built," she said.