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Thirsty? Tour highlights Central Utah Water projects

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SALT LAKE CITY — Few know of a steep, dark and dripping tunnel that descends several hundred feet under the Soldier Creek Dam at Strawberry Reservoir, carrying water away from the earth it would erode.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, gingerly picked her way along the wet surface, dodging the water that at times cascaded from its ceiling.

Later, after she had emerged from the 500-foot-long drainage tunnel, she admitted she had a "creepy" moment with the realization that it was this structure that was the guardian between her and an unfathomable amount of water.

It was structures like these — unassuming and tucked away from public view — that were showcased Thursday in a rare tour organized by the Utah Farm Bureau in cooperation with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

"I am amazed at this impressive engineering feat and absolutely impressed with the genius that went into this to keep our water delivery system safe and clean," Dayton said. "It it is also nice to know that this tunnel is protecting the dam from seepage."

The so-called "right tunnel" was burrowed down and under the dam after its completion, when the rocks around the base of the dam continued to glisten wet and foretold of possible structural failures down the road.

The $1.8 million tunnel is off limits to the public, under strict security and part of an elaborate water storage and delivery system that in this particular section includes 10 reservoirs, more than 200 miles of aqueducts tunnels and canals, a power plant and 300 miles of drains.

Touted as the largest water development project ever undertaken in the state of Utah — the Central Utah Water project moves water from the Colorado River to the populated Wasatch Front. The Bonneville Unit, featured on Thursday's tour, is anticipated to be done in another seven years, with construction costs for the entire project expected to top $3 billion.

Matt Hargreaves, spokesman for the Utah Farm Bureau, set up the tour to give lawmakers a glimpse into the complexities and planning that accompanies water delivery systems.

"Water infrastructure is out of sight and out of mind," he said. "With Utah County's population anticipated to grow by 800,000 by 2050, we will need water to meet that demand. It is time to start thinking about that now."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has mostly retreated from the dam building business and few water officials expect to see the completion of more locally funded dams. Making wise use of available water resources, then, becomes especially paramount, said Alan Matheson, senior environmental advisor to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

"I am always trying to learn and understand," Matheson said, explaining his presence on the tour. "It is important that the public understand what the issues and challenges are as we plan for the future of water in Utah."

Farther north of Soldier Creek, the tour stopped at the Jordanelle hydropower plant, which has the capacity to generate 13 megawatts of electricity that is then conveyed to Heber Light and Power.

The project began commercial power generation in 2008 and supplies enough electricity to light up 9,000 homes. Through a series of exchanges, one-third of the power goes to St. George, and another third to Lehi.

The hydropower plant is tucked away in a nondescript building at the base of the 300-foot dam at Jordanelle Reservior.

At the top, the expanse of Jordanelle shimmers under a September sun with clear skies, promising the more than million people it serves that water will flow to homes, fields, gardens and businesses.

Three dry years are starting to take their toll on the reservoir — dropping it 33 feet — but it has been able to fulfill its water supply role thus far.

"Without this reservoir, there would have been massive shortages in Salt Lake and Utah counties," said Richard Tullis, assistant general manager for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District.

Afterward, Daryl Devey, the district's Bonneville area operation and maintenance manager, said he hoped tour participants walked away with an enhanced understanding of water delivery systems, and why they are critical.

"It is good to be able to educate people on what it takes just to be able to take a drink of water. We all, including myself, turn on the tap and expect it to be there," he said. "All of the facilities we saw have to be there — at least for a good part of the people in Salt Lake and Utah valleys — to be able to live there. If it were not for these facilities, the water would have been gone a long time ago."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16