Image from Ecoflight

One step forward and two steps back? New effort to build the Bear River Project threatens to wipe out any progress made towards saving Great Salt Lake



SALT LAKE CITY, UT, November 15th, 2023 – Multiple sources have confirmed to the water group Grow the Flow that there is a behind the scenes effort underway to purchase land to build a large dam on the Bear River, diverting water that would otherwise flow to the Great Salt Lake. Because the Bear River Development Act remains state law and funds have already been set aside through the Water Infrastructure Restricted Account (or WIRA), the purchase could happen quickly and without public discussion. 


Are we giving up on Great Salt Lake? 

Grow the Flow has confirmed with multiple sources that a small group of influential legislators has been quietly moving to purchase approximately 5,000 acres in Whites Valley, northwest of Tremonton. The land would be used to build the largest reservoir in the Bear River Development, which would store up to 600,000 acre-feet of water. The reservoir would be filled by pump stations and pipelines from Bear River, the largest tributary to Great Salt Lake. 


Enshrined in state code in 1991, the Bear River Development Act was intended to divert and store excess water flowing to Great Salt Lake, such as during the wet years of the 1980s. Since that time, there has been precious little water to spare, and the lake has dropped more than 10 feet because of excessive water use and extended drought. This has prompted an unprecedented rescue effort to reverse the lake’s decline. Lawmakers have responded to this challenge by updating water code and investing hundreds of millions in water conservation projects across the state 


The Bear River Development could more than wipe out all those savings. 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. 


“I am disappointed that this is being considered at all,” said Ben Abbott, Grow the Flow’s executive director. “On the other hand, it appears that most of the legislature remains committed to protecting Great Salt Lake, and I hope they will take this off the table quickly and permanently.”  


Unpopular and unnecessary 

Originally justified by a rare period of excess water and extreme projections of skyrocketing water demand, the Bear River Development has been dismissed by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers as an expensive and outdated relic. Though boosters originally claimed its water would be needed by 2015, the state’s efficient and effective water conservation programs have pushed that timeframe out to 2045 or later. Even if it were built, none of the Bear River Development proponents have been able to answer the basic question of where the water for the reservoir would come from. 


“Despite some claims to the contrary, there is no ‘free’ water out there,” said Abbott. “New water development can only come at the expense of someone else, most likely farmers with junior rights and Great Salt Lake, which doesn’t have the water rights in place to protect it.” 


Great Salt Lake remains on life support despite the state’s biggest snow year, and agricultural water users upstream in the Bear River watershed have not previously been supportive of this version of the Bear River Development, which would only benefit the Wasatch Front.  

At the 2022 Great Salt Lake Issues Forum, the Bear River Development was described by lawmakers as a “zombie project” that is still on the books but that will never be built. If proponents of this project have their way, that may no longer be true. 


Since 2021, the Utah Division of Water Resources has spent millions of tax-payer dollars on right of way acquisitions designated for Bear River Development pipelines. The purchase of the Whites Valley reservoir site would up the ante considerably by signaling the state’s intention to divert and use more water. 


Developing the Bear River could have many unintended consequences. It could spur Idaho and Wyoming into a water race to claim undeveloped rights in the watershed and create additional legal exposure for the state, which has already been sued for its inadequate protection of public water resources. Further, the Whites Valley site would only exacerbate water conflicts between rural and urban Utah, as the reservoir could hang the agricultural water users of northeastern Utah out to dry. 


This project has been repeatedly described as the nail in the coffin for Great Salt Lake. Critics from all corners have asked if the State can claim to be working to restore Great Salt Lake while simultaneously continuing to pursue the Bear River Development. 


So why is this even being considered? 

It appears that the Bear River Development is being promoted by a small group of legislators and water development interests without input from the broader legislature or the public at large. For example, at Monday’s Legislative Water Development Commission meeting, there was no mention of the plan. Instead, legislators and conservancy districts unveiled a new comprehensive bill to consolidate water planning and focus on conservation. 


Purchasing the land does not guarantee the Bear River Development will be completed. However, it clearly signals to Utah residents and business leaders that the state’s commitment to saving Great Salt Lake may not be sincere or sustainable.  


“This project risks not only the State’s growing reputation for water conservation and environmental stewardship, but its ability to continue to grow and thrive,” said Jake Dreyfous, a program manager for Grow the Flow. “No one wants to live next to a giant dust bowl, and even if you don’t care about air quality, this project increases the likelihood of federal intervention to protect endangered species.”  


What can we do? 

Until the Bear River Development Act is rescinded and the WIRA funds are reallocated for a positive purpose, this dangerous development will always be just a few weeks away. Over the next two months, Grow the Flow will be contacting each senator and representative to get their position on the record. We believe that our elected officials are committed to a vibrant and healthy future–and that they will support bold action to rescue Great Salt Lake.  


We call on the legislature to repeal the Bear River Development Act and replace it with a vision that reflects the realities of 2023, including the urgent need to protect Great Salt Lake. New water infrastructure of any kind only makes sense in the context of a holistic plan that meets all of Utah’s needs for water. Without that, the rush to develop new water supply could very well destroy the quality of life that attracts people to Utah in the first place and erode our trust in each other. 


We will be advocating for these steps to be taken by the legislature or by ballot initiative, if necessary.