What is the Bear River Development?
Enacted in 1991, the Bear River Development Act gives the Division of Water Resources (DWRe) the power to develop water on the Bear River and its tributaries to meet the demand of northern Utah’s growing population. The DWRe expected to need this water by 2015. Due to conservation efforts, the need for this project has been delayed until 2050 or later.
If completed, the Bear River Development (BRD) would store upwards of 500,000 acre-feet of water in a series of reservoirs and would divert 220,000 acre-feet from the Bear River each year. This water would then get allocated to four water conservancy districts: Jordan Valley, Weber Basin, Cache, and Bear River. Jordan Valley and Weber Basin would receive 50,000 acre-feet annually, while Cache and Bear River would receive 60,000 acre-feet per year.
The Bear River Development is no small task. In fact, it stands as the largest proposed water development in the western United States. Cost estimates for the BRD range from $1.5 to $2.8 billion, which is already being subsidized by Utah tax-payers. This price tag puts annual repayment obligations for conservancy districts at a minimum of $18.2 million per year without the cost of water treatment, operation, and management.
Utahns and anyone passing through the state are already funding the Bear River Development. Since 2016, the Watershed Infrastructure Restricted Account (WIRA)—designated for the BRD and Lake Powell Pipeline—has accrued more than $150 million by taking a portion of the state’s sales tax revenue. This account is expected to accumulate upwards of $60 million each year it remains in place.
While this project is decades away from completion, individuals and agencies are taking significant steps to see the BRD through. Since 2021, the DWRe has spent millions of tax-dollars purchasing right of way allotments for the construction of the Bear River Pipeline. This ninety-mile long system of pipes could bisect the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, disrupting critical wetlands and habitat in the process.
Members of the legislature are now pursuing a multi-million dollar purchase of 5,000 acres for a preferred reservoir site in Whites Valley—an undeveloped area north east of Tremonton. At capacity, this reservoir alone could store as much as 600,000 acre-feet, that is twice the size of Jordanelle. Progressing from right of way acquisition to reservoir sites is a significant step towards making sure this project gets completed.
Not many Utah residents know about the Bear River Development, but all of them are already paying the cost. This project will undoubtedly be a massive economic burden for the state. It also poses a significant threat to the future of the Great Salt Lake.
How will the Bear River Development impact the Great Salt Lake?
The Great Salt Lake reached record lows in November 2022 due to upstream demand and the impacts of multi-decadal drought affecting much of the western United States. Utah’s record snowpack provided the lake with a temporary boost of water, but it did not bring the lake out of the clear. While significant conservation efforts are underway to restore the lake, the Bear River Development would undermine these efforts by diverting huge amounts of water away from the lake each year.
The Bear River is the largest tributary of the shrinking Great Salt Lake, providing 50% of the lake’s annual inflow. According to the DWRe, the BRD would reduce lake levels 8.5-14 inches; however, other estimates suggest depletions could be as much as two to four feet. It is likely depletion amounts by the state are an underestimate because modeling was based on scenarios in which all of the water was used for indoor municipal consumption. In reality, this water will likely be used for outdoor municipal use too, which will lead to increased depletion as compared to exclusively indoor consumption. Regardless, the BRD would deplete 20% of the inflow reaching Great Salt Lake each year. The Great Salt Lake cannot afford to lose this water for the sake of the economy, ecosystem, and community dependent on the lake.
Continuing to pursue the BRD comes at great expense to the Utah economy. Not only would the BRD significantly impact the $1.7 billion dollars generated annually by Great Salt Lake industries, this multi-billion dollar project would be funded exclusively by Utah tax-payers. The hundreds of millions of dollars the state has spent on agricultural optimization, secondary metering, or turf conversion programs to get more water to GSL are undermined by the BRD. The ensuing loss of water would also increase the cost of toxic-dust mitigation, decrease the efficiency of mineral extraction operations, and impact lake-based recreation such as waterfowling or sailing. The Bear River Development would be a major setback to Utah citizens, farmers, and industry leaders working hard to preserve Utah’s vibrant economy by conserving water to protect the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. They understand that the state’s economy and environment are deeply intertwined. The Bear River Development would be to the detriment of both.
Even without the BRD, the Great Salt Lake remains on the brink of ecological collapse. This project would directly and indirectly impact thousands of acres of wetlands. While the state recognizes these impacts, the effectiveness of wetland banking—similar to carbon credits—remains unclear. The construction of ninety miles of pipeline and a massive series of reservoirs near the Great Salt Lake will directly affect immense wetland habitats by digging trenches for the pipes and displacing acres of land for reservoirs.
Perhaps even more significant are the indirect impacts. The loss of 220,000 acre-feet of water annually will expose miles of lake bed and desiccate invaluable wetland complexes in and around Great Salt Lake. This loss of habitat poses a significant threat to migratory and nesting birds and could lead to colony abandonment or population die off. The wetlands around the Great Salt Lake are the single most important stopover in the Pacific Flyway, as most of the similar habitat areas have been lost to upstream depletion. Losing this much water would also increase the lake’s salinity, compromising the health of brine shrimp and flies, which could induce ecological collapse. If this were to happen, we could expect a significant die off of avian species around the lake, and the loss of an ecosystem that has provided for all beings in this region for time immemorial.
The Bear River Development also poses a significant threat to the human residents of Salt Lake Valley. Beyond the economic burden ensued by the BRD, this project would amplify the public health concerns associated with the loss of Great Salt Lake.
Losing an additional 220,000 acre-feet of water would expose miles of lake shore containing arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals. As shown by the disappearance of other terminal lakes across the world, these dust events impact residents’ pulmonary and reproductive health, economy, and housing market. It will also affect Utahn’s quality of life, diminishing opportunities to recreate in and around the lake with activities like waterfowling, skiing, fishing, sailing, bird-watching, and more.
Without the Bear River Development, it is an uphill battle to save Great Salt Lake. To restore the lake to healthy levels around 4200 feet MSL, the lake needs an additional 1,000,000 acre-feet of water per year. The diversion of 220,000 acre-feet from the lake’s largest tributary makes an already monumental task nearly impossible. The state cannot act in good faith to restore the Great Salt Lake while simultaneously continuing to pursue the Bear River Development. Without BRD, we have a chance to save Great Salt Lake. With it, we might as well toss in the towel today.
What can the legislature do about the Bear River Development?
Bear River Development Act:
Repealing the Bear River Development Act:
Repealing the Bear River Development Act is the most straightforward meaning of ending the BRD once and for all. Senior leaders in the Senate and powerful special interests have pursued the BRD for decades. Repealing the act in its entirety would end the possibility of this project seeing light, forcing proponents to admit defeat. It involves a courageous step by the majority of delegates in both the House and Senate to go against these powerful interests, potentially exposing them to significant political backlash.
Amending the Bear River Development Act:
Amending the Bear River Development Act over time provides an alternative means of reducing the possibility of the project from being completed. Rather than repealing it all together, legislators could make amendments to the act in order to account for the well-being of the lake before BRD related depletions or development occur. Changes to the way BRD water is used, the amount of water stored, or the total diverted could also help mitigate the damage of a completed BRD. Overtime, we would reach the core of this water development apple, making the project unviable once and for all.
Watershed Infrastructure Restricted Account (WIRA):
Complete reallocation of WIRA to GSL conservation:
Reallocating over $150 million in WIRA towards Great Salt Lake conservation efforts like GSLWET would not only bolster funds dedicated to the lake, it would end the continual subsidization of this project by Utah tax-payers. This change would be a cost and time effective means of using already available monies for conservation instead of unnecessary water development projects. The possibility of this substantial step happening during the upcoming legislative session is unlikely because of senior legislative opposition.
Repealing amendment providing Transportation Fund money to WIRA:
In 2016, the state authorized an amendment that commits 1/16th cent of sales and use tax from the Transportation Fund—managed by UDOT—to WIRA. While this may seem insignificant, the provision has enabled WIRA to accrue over $150million in just seven years. The legislature could repeal this amendment so that the 1/16th cent of tax revenue goes back to UDOT. While not reallocating the current funds, this would prevent more money from accumulating in the WIRA account, making it difficult to accrue the billions of dollars necessary for BRD.
Eliminating sales-tax funding WIRA:
The legislature could eliminate the tax funding WIRA altogether. This change has the opportunity to sit well with fiscally conservative legislators because it would provide a tax-break to constituents across the state. This elimination would not reallocate the available money, but it would prevent more money from accruing, making the BRD unattainable due to the project’s multi-billion dollar price tag.
Temporary reallocation of funds towards GSL conservation:
The temporary reallocation of WIRA funds towards GSL conservation put the BRD on hold while giving proponents of the future possibility to pursue this project. The legislature could make an amendment that designates future sales-tax revenue slated for WIRA to GSL enhancement projects. This solution would provide lake conservation efforts with hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years, while still allowing proponents to use available funds for the project. If successful, the legislature could move forward and permanently reallocate funds from WIRA to the Great Salt Lake.
Giving WIRA decision making power to GSL Commissioner:
The legislature could give authority of decision over WIRA money to the Great Salt Lake Commisioner in place of the DWRe. This change does not guarantee any funds will be redirected for the lake; however, the commissioners job focuses on prioritizing decisions that directly benefit the Lake. As the BRD compromises restoration efforts of the lake substantially, it is possible that the commissioner could reallocate WIRA funds either temporarily or permanently.
There are numerous ways for the Utah legislature to table the BRD, which would signal they mean business on the Great Salt Lake. Until these steps are taken, the BRD will loom over Utah tax-payers and continue to undermine real attempts to save the lake.
What can you do about the Bear River Development?
While our representatives are often seen as leaders, they follow the needs of their constituency. If your representative feels it is their constituents’ priority to end the BRD and restore Great Salt Lake, they will take steps to do so.
We all play a part in ensuring the future well being of the Great Salt Lake. If completed, the massive water infrastructure project would divert up to 220,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear River annually–more than three-times the amount of water savings achieved by recent water conservation programs in the Great Salt Lake watershed. Utahns trust their legislature to protect the Great Salt Lake and want to see more get done. Pursuing the Bear River Development undermines that trust.
Call your representative and let them know your opinion on this destructive project. Use the ideas described above to inform your representatives of the alternatives to the Bear River Development Act and WIRA.
Click HERE to find out who your representative is.
For information on legislative outreach and an example message, click HERE.
Over the next two months, Grow the Flow will be contacting each senator and representative to get their position on the record. To take part in our campaign to poll every representative on their opinion of the BRD, or for help organizing a town hall, protest, or demonstration reach out to us at: email@example.com
To find out when upcoming Great Salt Lake events are happening, check out our calendar.