If the state decides to go ahead with building three dams on the lower Bear River, it will be the start of a massive long-term water development project that could bring more water to the Wasatch Front than the Central Utah Project.

The Bear River Task Force wants funding for three of five dam sites proposed for Bear River below Bear Lake. Development of the lower Bear could take about 50 years, cost $400 million in 1990 dollars and bring about 350,000 acre-feet of water per year to the Wasatch Front.But dam sites above Bear Lake should also be considered to protect the lake's water quality, say Bear Lake homeowners and a Rich County official.

"The concern that we have is that the river will be developed at the expense of Bear Lake," said Dick Winters, a lakeside homeowner, chairman of the lake's tourism bureau and president of Friends of Bear Lake. "What is being done now is setting the stage for the future."

Winters and about 30 other members of Friends of Bear Lake have urged the state's Bear River Task Force to take the lake's water quality and recreational needs into consideration when deciding where to locate a dam or dams on the river, which winds through three states and crosses state lines five times before emptying into the Great Salt Lake.

Winters said his group had asked Rich County Commissioner Dee Johnson and environmental consultant Vincent Lamarra to present the Friends of Bear Lake position to the task force. Winters told task force members he did not want them to make their decisions in ignorance.

Johnson told the task force that a dam above Bear Lake would preserve water quality and help control lake level fluctuations in non-drought years. "The state of Utah probably has a moral responsibility" to protect the lake, he said.

However, Winters said, his and Johnson's statements do not mean Bear Lake advocates are against a dam or dams below the lake.

"The issue, the bottom line, is water. The focal point of the water is the Wasatch Front," Winters said in a telephone interview. "There are a lot of good reasons for (water) storage below the lake."

But because the river above the lake has serious water quality problems, "the best thing that could happen to the water quality of Bear Lake would be not to put Bear River water in it."

According to Lamarra, who researches water quality issues for the Utah-Idaho Bear Lake Commission, the lake's water is purer when it leaves the lake than when it arrives. An upstream dam in the Smith's Fork area of Wyoming would control the flow of excessive phosphates and nitrogen - the result of mining activities in Smith's Fork - into the lake.

Besides keeping the lake pristine, Winters said, an upstream dam would take storage pressure off the lake, which has essentially been an off-stream reservoir since the construction of a diversion canal and dam in the early part of the century.

Much of the river's water is committed to agricultural users. But when the water rights were parceled out decades ago, "no one addressed the interests of recreation," Winters said. "All of a sudden the state is trying to figure out how to get the water to the Wasatch Front. At the same time, parks and recreation people are trying to figure out how to get people's boats to the water at Bear Lake."

Utah Power & Light Co. owns 1.4 million acre-feet of the lake's water, and has other rights to power hydroelectric turbines and fill five major contracts to irrigation companies. UP&L's releases from the lake keep the lower Bear River flowing in dry years.

But the lake has dropped to its lowest levels since 1961, according to UP&L spokesman Carly Burton, and could drop even lower to levels not experienced since the five-year drought of the Great Depression era.

Burton recently detailed UP&L plans to cut irrigation deliveries by 20 to 25 percent if this winter produces scant snowpack.

Larry Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said that the Bear Lake Task Force's charge is to investigate water development on the Bear River. Virtually all of the upper Bear's water has been developed, he said.

"We have looked at the dam on Smith's Fork, and the only benefit to Utah is a water quality benefit," Anderson said. That may be enough to justify building the dam there, even though water stored there would go to Wyoming and Idaho, he said.

Anderson emphasized that the pre-design study released last month to the Bear River Task Force is a status report of a long-term project.

Anderson said one dam and reservoir would probably be built in the next 10 to 20 years. "You're going to see money spent over the years," he said. "It would be a little here and a little there. Chances are, (the state) will never build five dams on the Bear River," he said.