SALT LAKE CITY — State water officials say they no longer believe the Bear River Development Project needs to be in place by 2040, thanks to a better water conservation ethic by Utahns, advances in technology and a population that isn't increasing quite as fast as originally projected.
Todd Adams, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, said predictions that Utah would hit 6 million residents by 2060 have been revised to a population of 5.5 million people by 2065.
An independent analysis of water-use data and regional conservation efforts will begin in the next few months to arrive at more definitive data that will drive a revised target date to complete the $1.3 billion project.
Adams said it is clear now, however, that deployment of new technology in secondary water metering and significant strides made in water conservation among both residents and farmers will drive substantial decreases in water consumption.
In those areas where secondary water systems for landscapes and gardens have been put on meters, consumption has dropped by as much as 40 percent, water officials say.
Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, serving northern Utah residents in Weber, Davis and portions of Summit counties, has piloted a metering program with dramatic results. Other areas throughout the state have been embracing similar measures, particularly since technology has vastly improved.
Adams said he believes the more secondary water systems incorporate metering, the more water will be saved as residents become aware of the over-application of a finite resource and more savvy about waterwise vegetation.
The Bear River Development Act, approved by the Utah Legislature in 1991, calls for the diversion of up to 220,000 acre-feet of water per year from the tri-state river for storage in constructed dams. That water would then be piped to serve cities along the Wasatch Front, including the Salt Lake metropolitan area.
Critics have said the project's withdrawal of water from the Bear River is not sustainable and would cause irreparable harm to the Great Salt Lake, which is already suffering the effects of historically low water levels.
The 350-mile Bear River, the largest tributary of the Great Salt Lake, begins and ends in Utah, completing an inverted U before it drains into the lake. At its high water mark, the Bear River has flows of approximately 1.2 million acre-feet.
The Utah Department of Natural Resources says the Bear River and its tributaries represent about 60 percent of the 2 million acre-feet of surface inflow water entering the Great Salt Lake.
Marisa Egbert, process manager for the Bear River Development, said additional information derived from studies in the region involving conservancy districts will help develop a better understanding of the project's need and its timing.
Cache County residents recently voted to form a new water conservancy district to develop new conservation strategies, and the Bear River district in Box Elder County is working on a master plan evaluating agricultural conversion, water conservation and regional projects to augment water supplies.