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Bear Lake at lowest in 70 years

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LOGAN (AP) — Bear Lake is at its lowest level in 70 years, and farmers who rely on the Bear River can expect just 39 percent of their normal irrigation supply this year.

Officials expect a water emergency will be declared sometime this summer, resulting in water being shut off to Idaho irrigators.

The winter started strong, especially in comparison with recent years, but snowpacks in the Bear River Range ended up well below normal.

"March has been just horrible," said Jack Barnett, manager of the Bear River Compact. "When we should have been building snowpack, we were losing it. That was really the crowning blow."

PacifiCorp, which manages water supplies on the Bear River, estimates that it will be able to distribute just 85,000 acre-feet to area farmers in 2004. That is 39 percent of what farmers would receive if Bear Lake were full, and just 47 percent of last year's distribution.

The estimate was released Monday during a meeting of the Bear Lake Conservation Advisory Committee.

Carly Burton, a former PacifiCorp engineer who managed the river for decades, said the irrigation estimate could change due to precipitation and runoff in the next few months, but it is unlikely that it would increase significantly.

"Pretty much without fail, the preliminary numbers become the final numbers," he said.

PacifiCorp estimated the lake will be at 5,905.5 feet above sea level when irrigation distribution begins. That's about 18 feet below normal, and just 3.5 feet above the level at which PacifiCorp can no longer pump water from the lake into the river.

In addition to the irrigation allocation, about 1.5 to 2 feet will be lost to evaporation.

Barnett said the situation likely will result in a water emergency being declared.

He said the Bear Lake Commission may do so if a user with Utah water rights, which are considered senior, claims to have been shorted by an upstream user with Idaho water rights.

The Bear River Canal Co. in Box Elder County has Utah water rights, while the Cub River and West Cache canal companies have Idaho rights.

In the event of an emergency, the latter two would be denied additional water from the river.

"It's just a question of when," Barnett said. "Somebody's going to get cut off. This has never happened before in the history of the operation of the river."

Barnett also said that given the lake's current level, farmers can expect similar irrigation supplies for the foreseeable future.

"If we get average years, it's going to take a long time to bring that storage level back up," he said.

Cub River Canal Co. President Gale Moser said he will meet with the company's shareholders. He said that in addition to planting less acreage, many will likely substitute crops that require less water.

"We'll explain it to them, and they'll have some choices they'll have to make," Moser said.