More and more, it appears the time has come for putting wasted Bear River water to beneficial use.
More than 30 years have passed since officials from Utah, Idaho and Wyoming worked out the Bear River Compact, an agreement that allocates the river's water among the three states. Yet, for the most part, the bulk of that water now ends up unused in the Great Salt Lake.The Legislature's Natural Resources Interim Committee is about to change that. The committee will consider draft legislation in December that will recommend pumping $10 million in state money into the effort.
This funding is intended to be just the start of an ongoing yearly allocation that would eventually finance five reservoir projects on the Bear River.
The draft legislation, for the most part, is expected to follow a plan drawn up by Sen. Fred Finlinson, R-Salt Lake. That plan allocates 95,000 acre feet annually for the Bear River Water Conservancy District (which mostly serves Box Elder County); a similar amount for the yet-to-be-formed Cache Water Conservancy District; 60,000 acre feet for the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge; 50,000 acre feet for the Salt Lake County Water Conservancy District; and 50,000 acre feet for the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District (Davis and Weber counties). Another 10,000 acre feet would be held out for development of projects on the upper Bear River.
For the water-starved Box Elder area, Bear River development is a must. For waterlogged Cache County, a go-slow approach is favored. For Salt Lake and Weber Basin, it's a matter of keeping a hand in to protect future needs.
As one of the most arid states in the nation, Utah simply must develop new sources of water if it is to keep growing. With much of Utah currently feeling the effects of a prolonged drought, it's particularly urgent to start moving ahead with plans for the Bear River.
But safeguards are needed, especially if this is to be a long-term effort as is expected.
First, the Legislature must keep monitoring this undertaking to make sure the money is effectively used and not wasted. Certainly, the various projects on the Bear River should be financed with revenue bonds to be repaid through sales of the newly developed water. That way, those benefiting from the project shoulder the cost of repaying the bonds.
Second, the appropriate legislative committee should ensure that existing water rights are protected along with the future interests of the affected participants.
Third, officials should see that appropriate review processes are instituted to assure projects comply with environmental and other oversight regulations governing such projects.
The present effort is just the first step in a process that will take many years to complete. But the longer Utah waits to put wasted Bear River water to productive use, the more the projects involved will cost.