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The story of a fish, a river and what’s ahead for property owners

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We feel like we have come to a good compromise with this plan. It spares 300 acres of prime agricultural land and hopefully accomplishes their purpose with the June sucker. – LaDonn Robins Christianson

PROVO — It will take a lot of years, a lot of money and a lot of angst to unravel what man has done to the lower Provo River — all effort and worry to save a fish some say isn't worth saving.

Multiple agencies have crafted a plan now available for public comment they believe preserves recreation interests, does the least amount of damage to impacted property owners and saves the June sucker.

"It is a compromise that we believe is still big enough to accomplish what we need to do for fish," said Mike Mills, coordinator of the June Sucker Recovery Program.

The proposal is to reroute a 1.5-mile segment of the river to the north, creating a delta in which several tendrils of flowing water eventually wind their way to Utah Lake. Resulting marshes, wetlands and vegetation will provide the "cover" or nursery necessary for the young fish to survive, thrive and make the swim upstream.

"The habitat conditions in the lower part of the river are not suitable to sustain the babies," Mills said. "Because the Provo River has been dredged and channeled so much over the years, it is basically just a dirt bathtub."

Saving the June sucker, however, is more than about saving a fish; it's about saving the water supply for a growing Wasatch Front.

"The thing that keeps everybody in the boat is the water," Mills said. "We don't want to run the risk of having the water we need jeopardized. We do not want to risk our water supply."

Mills said the federal government has already warned that man's meddling by keeping Deer Creek Reservoir full interferes with Provo River flows that could help the fish. Reservoir storage, while good for man, is bad for nature in this instance.

"We would hate for the agency to come back and say we are using water to the detriment of the June sucker," Mills said.

Since being added to the Endangered Species List in 1986, the fish has gone from a population numbering 500 to tens of thousands. These fish only exist in Provo River and Utah Lake and are only there in such numbers now because they have been raised in a hatchery before being released at an age at which they could survive.

Mills said restoration of the river to its natural state, coupled with an aggressive program to remove predator carp, will enable the sucker to flourish.

Under the alternative settled on by the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Central Utah Project Completion Act Office and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, the project would keep the existing channel intact, with some flow of water, along with the current Provo River Parkway trail.

The main flow of the river, however, would be diverted to the north, creating a natural free-flowing system of little channels that would end at the lake. Other components of the Provo River Delta Restoration Project include adding 4,500 acre-feet of water to the system that has been "saved" over the years through shoring up losses via seepage and evaporation.

An additional 6,345 feet of trail would be added to the system, plus 27 acres of wetlands. Some of the new trail would skirt Moreno Robins' property, but not disturb it.

Robins is among the nearly two dozen property owners at risk of loss due to the river-rerouting plan, working through the years with the agencies to pound out a solution.

He is hopeful that his cattle ranch and pastures along the shore of Utah Lake will survive the undertaking to restore the fish, but, until he's convinced, he's keeping his fingers crossed and his faith at bay.

"We found out we could not defeat the June sucker and the Endangered Species Act because it is attached to the water that's here," he said.

The negotiated compromise does not take any of his property and actually provides some benefit, Robins said.

"They'll build a trail that will go around our property so that city people can actually see a farm, cattle, with pheasants, ducks and geese."

His daughter, LaDonn Robins Christianson, said the process has been long, but ultimately it achieved beneficial results.

"We feel like we have come to a good compromise with this plan. It spares 300 acres of prime agricultural land and hopefully accomplishes their purpose with the June sucker."

Robins is grateful for the work that has been done on the plan as well, but he stresses he doesn't have to necessarily agree it's for a worthwhile cause.

"In conclusion, whlie I, personally, and many others think it is a terrible crime to spend millions and millions of dollars to save a fish just because it is on the Endangered Species list, we can't fight that, apparently," he said.

Authorities have scheduled a meeting in April to air details of the proposed project alternative and to discuss concerns that continue to exist.

Restoration of the riparian habitat of wetlands and marshes, for example, has created concern for neighboring airport officials who fear it will significantly increase the risks of bird-strikes with aircraft, in particular pelicans. Mills said part of the project contemplates a two-year bird movement study to assess the threat.

"We realize there are still some issues and concerns to be addressed regarding the proposed project, and we want to hear about those from the public so we can try to resolve those, too,” said Gene Shawcroft, deputy general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

The meeting will be April 2 from 6-8 p.m. at the Provo City Recreation Center, 320 W. 500 North. Comments on the plan are being accepted until May 7.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

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