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It would be easy to blame it all on Rock Holbrook.

A husky, taciturn man, Holbrook runs the Utah Power pumping station in this speck of a town on Bear Lake's north shore - the place where the fate of the Bear River, and of the farms and fowl that survive along it, is decided with the flip of a switch.The cavernous concrete pumping station is the artificial heart of the river. Holbrook controls the valves, allowing water to flow into the lake and then back to the river, which churns through Cache Valley and Box Elder County.

"I live and die by this river," said Cache County farmer Jim Watterson, who taps into Cutler Reservoir to irrigate 300 acres. "Without running storage out of Bear Lake, I wouldn't be here."

Indeed, the system has been hailed for almost a century as the salvation of the region's $45 million agricultural industry. But for the past 10 years, it's become a curse to a growing number of Bear Lake residents.

"Bear Lake is a treasure which is being damaged due to possible unlawful government activities," said former NFL star and lakeside landowner Merlin Olsen. "If we don't reverse the process soon, Bear Lake may never recover."

It's a classic Western battle of competing interests, and Holbrook quietly sits in the middle of it.

Since 1983, the Bear River basin has been drenched and dried at history-making levels. During an unprecedented wet cycle, homeowners complained Holbrook didn't pump enough to keep water from slapping against their front doors. Now, during a recurring drought, they say he pumps too much, sucking away the shoreline and creating an ugly beachfront of gooey, gray mud and tall grass.

Meanwhile, farmers have binding contracts and court decrees that require Utah Power to deliver a specified amount of water to their land.

"We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," Holbrook said. "The whole problem is ignorance of the entire system . . . this (pumping operation) was designed when there were no boats and cabins on the lake."

Pumping power

Like most rivers that end up quenching the thirst of the populous Wasatch Front, Bear River begins in the Uinta Mountains. Its half-dozen mountain-stream tributaries cascade down the north slope and eventually converge into a single waterway in Wyoming.

It was near Evanston, Wyo., that a stagecoach station operator named John Meyers filed the first water right on the river in 1862. "He had to have feed for his horses and oxen, so he started raising a little hay at his station and he diverted water from the river," said his 87-year-old grandson Wes Meyers, a retired rancher still living in the area.

"We still use the original ditch," he said.

Farther west, the river was little more than an obstacle to cross for the Indians and trappers, who lived and worked in Cache Valley in the early 1800s, according to historians. Trappers eventually named it for the bears roaming the region.

Thirty years after Meyers staked his claim, talk of using Bear Lake to regulate the river started to surface.

The federal government was the first to investigate storing high spring runoff in Bear Lake and releasing it in dry months. In the late 1890s, a group of private land developers in Box Elder County, where the river empties into the Great Salt Lake, presumably had the same idea and filed claims on water that could be stored in Bear Lake.

But it was Telluride Power Co. that made the Bear Lake storage system a reality. Near the turn of the century, the pioneering power company searched for sources of electricity to power the region's mining boom, and the Bear River's steep descent from Bear Lake to the Great Salt Lake was ideal for hydroelectric dams. The 109-square-mile Bear Lake, which is separated from the river by marshlands and small ponds collectively called Mud Lake, was also a natural storage reservoir.

It wasn't difficult to get southern Idaho and northern Utah farmers to let their water turn electricity-generating turbines before flooding their fields. They wanted water stored in Bear Lake to bail them out when the river slowed to a trickle in late summer or in dry years. And they liked the idea of someone else building and operating the system.

Utah Power & Light Co., as it was called in 1912, inherited the Bear Lake project when it purchased Telluride that year. The Salt Lake-based company completed the canal diverting water into the lake and hauled in five giant pumps on horseback to lift water out of the lake and into another canal that led back to the river.

When its six hydroelectric dams were completed along the river in 1927, Utah Power ran one of the most-regulated rivers in the country - pumping lake water to irrigators when the river was low, while generating electricity for the growing Wasatch Front.

Morning prayer

But the system has diminished in status, providing just 3 percent of Utah Power's total production today. In fact, Holbrook hasn't pumped water out of the lake solely for power generation since 1987. But the company is still obligated by contracts and court decrees to deliver lake-stored water to irrigators.

So every morning Utah Power engineers hold "prayer meetings" to discuss the day's water deliveries and "pray the plants will be on to meet the system load," system manager Carly Burton joked about the longstanding tradition. "They were calling them prayer meetings when I started 22 years ago."

Bear Lake residents would like a plea on their behalf. They have filed suit against the federal government for permitting Utah Power to dredge and drain the lake for more water. Many see the legal action as posturing for a place at the table in 1998, when the three-state Bear River Commission must determine whether to amend an interstate compact dividing the river water among the states.

"It's evidence that the homeowners need to be considered and that they have made a commitment to be considered," said Randall Weiner, senior attorney for the Colorado-based Land and Water Fund, which filed suit on behalf of the homeowners group Bear Lake Watch.

Farmers insist they have legal rights to the water and won't give that away for nothing. But given the increasing political clout of environmental and lifestyle interests, homeowners will at least be heard, even if they don't get their way. "Environmental issues are playing a larger role and the old water buffaloes are becoming an endangered species," said State Engineer Bob Morgan, who settles Utah water rights disputes. "I expect (the issue of homeowners' water rights on Bear Lake) will come before the commission in 1998."

Another reservoir

The recurring drought has forced the debate over managing the Bear River's finite resource. But even Utah Power's pumping system has its limits.

The company has asked farmers to cut back 30 percent. With the restriction, "We will lose that much in corn, wheat and hay at about $350 an acre," lamented Richard Capener, who irrigates 2,500 acres in Box Elder County.

But farmers aren't the only ones moaning about a water shortage. Where the Bear River drains into the Great Salt Lake, more than 208 species of birds make their home. Without fresh water to flush out the marshes, the fowl can be poisoned by botulism.

"We are feeling the effects more than anybody right now," said Al Trout, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Bear River Bird Refuge. "We are going dry. We have 43,000 acres of wetlands and we expect to come through with 4,000."

But what Utah Power's system can't fix, many believe another reservoir on the river could.

Under the Bear River Compact, Utah has 220,000 acre-feet of Bear River water left to develop. Nearly all of that water roars down the river during early spring and more than half of it could be captured in a reservoir and stored for later use. It could also be an alternative water supply to pumping Bear Lake, leaving more water for lakeside homeowners.

Several proposals have been considered, and the one most likely to fly would be near Honeyville, a small community south of Tremonton. Committees of lawmakers and engineers voice strongest support for the proposed dam impounding 149,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of $43 million.

But like the Bear Lake storage idea a century ago, the notion of another reservoir on the river has more verbal support than cold cash to get it done.

The Legislature has declared it a state project, allocating the water among five northern Utah counties. But 70 percent of the water must be committed to willing buyers before construction begins. Trout said federal dollars could be available if the dam is environmentally sound, which means the resources a dam would destroy must be restored elsewhere. A joint state and federal study is under way to determine the environmental and financial feasibility of the Honeyville site.

The county most likely to step forward first with its money is Salt Lake.

"As we look down the road, we are out of water in 20 years, and we are looking at a combination of the Bear River, treated Utah Lake water, ground water and conservation to meet our ultimate needs," said David Ovard, general manager of the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District.

Ovard and other water developers also anticipate a fight with local residents and environmentalists likely to rise up in opposition to another dam inundating farms and wetlands.

As water bosses farther south debate the future, the river's gatekeeper, Rock Holbrook, must continue his juggling act of getting water to farmers while diplomatically fending off his angry lakeside neighbors.

He's building a new home across the street from the pumping station with a view of Bear Lake's turquoise blue water to the south and of pelicans, geese and ducks swimming through the nearby marshes on the north.

And he expects to stay as long as he can keep farmers downstream happy.

"I strive not to be the first supervisor not to honor the contracts of irrigators," he boomed over the din of five water pumps sucking the lake away to the farms downstream.