As she paddles a canoe of the Bear River near her Logan home, Alice Lindahl feels as if she’s exploring the Okefenokee Swamp.
There are no houses, no signs of civilization. Cloudy green water rolls past dead cottonwoods that serve as nurseries for great blue herons and baby great-horned owls.
Ibises, snowy egrets, Franklin gulls, black-crowned night herons, pelicans and sandhill cranes duck in and out of bulrush and cattail marshes.
“It’s my Jim Bridger experience,” Lindahl says of the trip down the Bear, one of three major tributaries that surround the Great Salt Lake like a giant spider web.
Author Philip Fradkin writes in his book A River No More that “no group of people in the West since the coming of the whites has been more aware of the importance of water, more cohesive and diligent in searching, capturing it and distributing it or more suitably adapted to preserving and perpetuating a water-dependent culture in an arid land than the Mormons.”
Almost from the first day the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they started diverting water from the Great Salt Lake tributaries for culinary and agricultural needs.
Almost 150 years later, the lake’s three major tributary systems – the Bear, Weber and Jordan – have been dammed, developed and diverted to serve a growing society.
The rivers give Wasatch Front residents drinking water and generate electricity. Their wetlands filter pollutants created by industry and draw millions of shorebirds and waterfowl. Farmers irrigate crops with diverted water.
Thousands of boaters use large reservoirs such as Pineview, Hyrum and Deer Creek as well as Bear Lake. Anglers, canoeists, bicyclists and hikers spend hours in the lush parks and wildlife areas found in and along the rivers.
Says river runner Jim Boone of Lewiston: “I wish I had a time machine to go back and see what it was like.”
Lloyd Austin, the chief of resource inventories and special studies for the Division of Water Resources, possesses such a machine. He uses it to examine the past and explore the future of Great Salt Lake water development.
Austin and his staff used computers to discover that diversion and development on the tributary system have reduced the Great Salt Lake’s level by 4.8 feet in the past 150 years. He expects the Lake to drop another 12 to 18 inches during the next 100 years.
Yet, as we discovered during the high water years of the 1980s, humans don’t control the Great Salt Lake system.
“For all the development that’s occurred on the lake system – including dams, the causeways, the railroads – we’re still at the mercy of whatever nature decides to do,” says Dave Eskelsen of Utah Power, which controls much of the Bear River water system.
Austin agrees. In order to contain the floods of the 1980s, the state or federal government would have had to construct 110 reservoirs the size of Pineview.
“We shouldn’t try to control the system,” he says. “That would be extremely difficult and costly. It’s better to work with the system rather than fight it.”
That’s why Austin still defends the $60 million pumps built in the 1980s to prevent the Great Salt Lake from flooding Salt Lake International Airport and Interstate 80. Engineers pumped water into the west desert, creating what’s now known as West Desert Pond. By expanding the size of the lake, the amount of evaporation increased.
The the fickle weather pattern changed. Now amid a five-year drought, water managers contemplate building new dams on the Bear River system to accommodate the Wasatch Front’s growing population.
The Bear River provides approximately 40% of the water that flows into the Great Salt Lake. About 34% of the inflow comes in the form of precipitation. The Jordan and Weber river systems provide another 13% each. A small portion of water comes from underground sources and streams flowing in from the north, south and west portions of the Great Basin.
Development of the tributaries has hurt ecological systems. On the Bear River Bird Refuge, for example, only one of five freshwater holding ponds filled in 1992, depriving birds of feeding grounds and roosting areas.
“We’ve lost a river system but people are making money from agriculture,” says Al Trout, refuge superintendent. “The Bear River is our lifeline. We need those summer flows.”
Jody Williams, a water-rights attorney for Utah Power and a member of the Utah Wildlife Board, wonders how the ducks and shorebirds relying on the Great Salt Lake system survive.
“If we don’t get enough water in the system, the marshes stagnate and the ducks start dying in late summer because of botulism,” she says. “If we get too much water in the spring, their nests are flooded and wiped out.”
In some ways, society now pays for its abuse of Great Salt Lake River systems. They have been dredged, diverted, polluted and abused. Now, government officials are trying to restore natural wetlands.
Steve Jensen, an environmental-planning coordinator for Salt Lake County, has been instrumental in cleaning up the Jordan River system. Though some coliform-bacteria and heavy-metal pollution problems remain to be solved from North Temple in Salt Lake City north to Farmington Bay, water quality on the Jordan has improved in recent years.
“We are trying to reclaim the wetland acreage along the river so we can gain a lot of the buffer capacity,” says Jensen. “The wetlands treat the pollutants before they can enter the river and, ultimately, the waterfowl areas which surround the lake. That system is efficient in removing coliform bacteria, metals and nutrients. That’s why wetlands are so important.”
This new emphases on natural systems may turn out to be a boon for naturalists like Lindahl, conservation chairwoman of the Bridgerland Audubon Society, and other city residents looking for green places to escape an urban environment.
Major parkways on the Provo, Jordan and Ogden rivers are being constructed. Improved water quality creates urban fisheries. Land set aside for wetlands and flood control can be used for parks and trails.
Jim Boone knows the value of such places, just as Jim Bridger must have known when he joined other mountain men in exploring the Great Salt Lake tributaries. In an introduction to a canoeing guide to the Bear River, Boone writes:
“At dawn in late summer, before the sun comes boldly over the mountain range to the east, a low, dense fog hugs the water’s surface and obscures the boatman’s vision. Close aboard, an invisible beaver’s tail smacks the river. Just around the next bend, a small flock of Canada geese is about to rise to begin its daily round of the grain fields. This is the Bear when it relaxes.”