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Water projects’ environmental costs questioned

State considering pipelines from Bear River, Lake Powell

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Low water reveals an alcove, above, at Lake Powell. In the front are trees once marked by floating bottles.

Low water reveals an alcove, above, at Lake Powell. In the front are trees once marked by floating bottles.

Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News

Two large water projects that state officials are thinking about building come with hefty price tags — that much is certain. What's not so cut and dried is what the environmental costs would be.

They are at opposite ends of Utah. In the north, the Bear River Development Project would cost $260 million, while in the south, the Lake Powell-St. George Pipeline Project is pegged at about $370 million.

The total, $630 million in today's dollars, would rise dramatically if paid for later. According to the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the pipeline and Fort Pearce Reservoir alone would rocket to more than $593 million in 2018 dollars.

Gov. Olene Walker recently established the Water Delivery Financing Task Force to consider how to pay for the projects. Meanwhile, other questions have surfaced about less quantifiable costs.

Bear River Project

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began studying the Bear for new reservoirs in the 1950s, according to an August 2002 report by the Division of Water Resources. In 1991, the Legislature approved an act to develop the water of the Bear River and its tributaries.

As later tweaked, the physical aspects of the project would involve connecting the Bear River with Willard Bay via pipeline or canal, constructing conveyance and treatment facilities to take water from Willard Bay to the Wasatch Front, and building a dam in the Bear River Basin.

The dam originally was to be near Honeyville, Box Elder County, but environmental concerns caused a change in the plan. Now the reservoir site is Washakie, located east of Washakie, Box Elder County, about 10 miles north of Tremonton.

The reservoir would hold 160,000 acre-feet and cover 4,906 acres. Berms would be built on three sides, with I-15 running along a crest on the fourth (eastern) side.

The dam would not be across the Bear River. Instead, water would be diverted from the Bear below Cutler Reservoir to this site, conveyed about 13 miles. Meanwhile, the Malad River would be rerouted away from the reservoir because the Malad is too salty. A Utah Power electrical line would be moved from the site, which is mostly farmland, and some homes would be removed.

Even with the siting change, said Merritt Frey, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, the project definitely will cause environmental impacts on the Bear River and downstream areas.

"We're talking about diverting a significant amount of the flow of the river," she said. She believes riparian habitat would be affected.

If the river level drops and the water table goes down, that could affect plants and animals, Frey said.

Downstream, the federal government's Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, is "where things get dramatic," she added. The 74,000-acre refuge is located on the northeastern extension of the Great Salt Lake. Frey said it hosts nearly 250 species.

With less water in the system because of the reservoir, there would be a loss of habitat and food for birds and other animals, she said. A diminished habitat means wildlife would be crammed into less area and therefore be more vulnerable to the transmission of disease.

Avian crowding also means better hunting for predators, she added.

"The refuge has a large and very old, senior water right that must protect it," she said.

Wetlands beyond the refuge also are a worry. Lower lake levels and the reductions of these wetlands can affect duck-hunting and wildlife all around the lake, she said.

When the Malad River is moved, the new river bed would be lined with riprap, she said. This wall of boulders "is never a hospitable habitat for wildlife," according to Frey.

Another question Frey has concerns historic and prehistoric remains at the Washakie reservoir site.

Lynn DeFreitas of the group Friends of the Great Salt Lake said the real challenge is looking for ways to conserve water. A report issued some years ago by the Utah Rivers Council said development on the Bear River could cause the Great Salt Lake to fall, she said.

A drop in the lake's water level has the potential of drying wetlands, and the lake-side ecosystem is important to millions of migratory birds, according to DeFreitas. About 75 percent of the wetlands in Utah are adjacent to the lake, she added.

Dennis Strong, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said an environmental impact statement will be prepared before the Bear River Project is built. In the 1990s, the state hired a Logan-based environmental consulting firm to help analyze the then-proposed Honeyville Reservoir.

The consultants, division and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked together to examine that reservoir site, he said. The conclusion was that impacts would be considerable but could be mitigated. Among the losses would be streamside habitat.

Eventually, the Honeyville locale was abandoned in favor of the more costly but less damaging Washakie site, according to the division.

Washakie Reservoir would be created on farmland that is already affected by man, he said.

"The Malad River is not considered a high-level fishery. In fact, I don't even know if it is a fishery down that low. It's very high in total dissolved solids."

Speaking of possible historic and prehistoric sites at the reservoir, he said, the state has "some cultural concerns."

The reservoir operations would be coordinated with needs of the refuge in mind. The division is talking about storing water only in times of high flows and in the winter, when it's not needed by the wildlife or farmers.

Also, he said, the refuge may need high, flushing flows.

"We would send those down the river," he said. "We have a great deal of respect for the refuge and its value, though some folks claim we don't."

Asked about the assertion that taking water from the Bear could affect the level of the Great Salt Lake and harm surrounding wetlands, Strong said the reservoir and associated projects were pegged at about 200,000 acre-feet. Average annual inflow to the lake from the Bear River is about 1 million acre-feet, although, depending on the year, it can vary from several million to several hundred thousand acre-feet, he said.

The actual Washakie Reservoir may be less than that, at 160,000 acre-feet. Since the reservoir would not fill overnight, the impact on the Great Salt Lake shouldn't be substantial, he thinks.

To get a better understanding of the effects, including some that may not be foreseen now, is the reason an environmental impact statement is needed, he said. "There may be something to do with . . . threatened or endangered species. We're not aware of any," Strong said.

Lake Powell Pipeline

The pipeline would take water from Lake Powell, probably between Lone Rock and Stateline Marina, and convey it largely along the highway right of way to St. George.

The 16-inch diameter, 120-mile pipeline and the Fort Pearce Reservoir are not the only environmental concerns, said Mark Clemens, coordinator for the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club.

"There's a very significant public policy question here," he said. That involves spending priorities "when the folks at Washington County don't take (water) conservation seriously."

He questioned whether many millions of dollars should be invested in the project when school textbooks may be in short supply and transportation may be short-changed.

Washington County seems proud of the fact that it aims at reducing water use by 25 percent, dropping it to 289 gallons per person per day by 2035 or 2050, he said. "And yet today, folks in Tucson, Ariz., use about 170 gallons per day."

Ron Thompson, director of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said the group is working on improving conservation.

"We're the first district in Utah to pass a conservation plan," he said.

It is working on ordinances restricting time of day for watering lawns and has plans to restructure water sales to emphasize conservation, he said. "Wherever we can, we try to insist on restrictive ordinances" about landscaping in order to encourage conservation.

The district has a full-time conservation officer, Thompson said. And it wants improvements in conserving.

Responding to Clemens' comments about Tucson, he said, "Some of what they do I think is nice. Some of that I don't think you'd put that as a Utah lifestyle." It's important to look for balance, he said.

The district's plans are based on projections that Washington County population will continue to soar, from the present 116,000 people to 648,000 by 2018 or 2050.

"There are limits to growth," Clemens said, "and we need to take into account that we live in an arid land and that the Colorado River is not nearly so bounteous as we at one time believed."

A "whole suite" of endangered plants are found in Washington County, including "the beautiful dwarf bear claw poppy . . . and they're teetering on the brink of extinction as it is."

Thompson rejoined, "There are no endangered plants on this right of way, and we've looked at that pretty close."

The debate must not be limited to whether threatened and endangered species are on the actual right of way or reservoir site, according to Clemens.

With "aggressive, unplanned growth" in southwestern Utah, he said, little hope remains for these species to survive in the region. The water project would fuel unplanned growth, according to him.

Thompson said the district can't be faulted on growth issues. Water conservation experts can't tell people not to move to the area.

"That's not our job," he said. "Nobody ordained us to do that."

Instead, the district is required to consider population projections and adjust its services, according to Thompson. "I've got to plan for the future and have a plan that can accommodate whatever happens."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com