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Is Hyrum Dam plan too pricey?

Project to help water birds will cost $58 million

SHARE Is Hyrum Dam plan too pricey?

A proposal to enlarge the Hyrum Dam is for the birds. Literally.

But some state lawmakers are wondering if the $58 million project — needed to keep the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge lush and wet — is too expensive just for birds.

"I question whether the price for the water is reasonable," said Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward, during a meeting of the State Water Development Commission last week.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying for years to come up with a way to keep the bird refuge from drying up from July to September. They think they've found a solution in raising the 116-foot-high dam by 90 feet. That would allow the spring runoff from the Little Bear River — a tributary of the Bear River — to be stored in a reservoir, providing the refuge with much-needed water during the summer months.

It would be an annual boost of 58,000 acre feet of water.

Since the refuge was established in 1928, lack of water during the summer months has been a chronic problem, said refuge manager Al Trout.

"We've been searching for partners and opportunities to make something happen. This appears to be something that could work with minimal impacts," he said.

Although the dam expansion has been discussed before, there's renewed interest now that the dam owner, the Bureau of Reclamation, wants to help out. The Bureau of Reclamation is considering seeking $58 million in federal funds needed to raise the dam 90 feet and stabilize the banks of the Little Bear River.

"We haven't looked at it long enough to know whether it's feasible or not," said Jay Henrie, the Bureau of Reclamation's deputy area manager in Provo. As far as expanding the dam is concerned, "We feel like it's a doable project."

Others are lukewarm about the idea. But Trout thinks it's worthy.

"The bird refuge is a world-class, one-of-a-kind gem in Utah. There's nothing else like it," Trout told the commission. "And we have one chance to give it the water it needs."

The 74,000-acre refuge is a crucial stopping place for hundreds of species along the Pacific Flyway, which migrating birds follow for thousands of miles on their route north from South America to Canada and Alaska. Amid hundreds of miles of arid desert, the refuge is an oasis for thousands of waterfowl, officials explained.

"It's clear the refuge needs more water," said Zack Frankel, conservation director of Utah Rivers Council. But he's wary of the motives.

"We'd like to know whether the water will be used for the refuge, or if it just is another unnecessary water project for urban uses," he said.

It's certainly been discussed, said Henrie.

"The plan right now is to use the water just for the refuge," Henrie said. But providing water to nearby communities could be an option, especially if a pipeline is built to divert water from Blacksmith Fork Canyon over to the Little Bear River.

Trout, however, said there's been only discussions with the town of Hyrum. Of the 58,000 acre feet of water that would be stored each year, Hyrum would get 2,000 acre feet of that, he added.

"That's a plus. We see that as a win-win," Trout said.

There are few downsides to this plan, he added.

Enlarging the dam will inundate Hyrum State Park, which is heavily used by campers and picnickers, but Trout said the park would be relocated.

Five homes would be impacted and Trout hopes to work with those homeowners to win them over.

There also could be some ecological impacts on the Little Bear River, Henrie said.

That has Frankel cautious.

"We're anxious to see what impacts the expansion would have on the ecosystem," he said.

E-MAIL: donna@desnews.com