SALT LAKE CITY — The unusual thing about the Bear River isn’t that it begins and ends in Utah, or that it crosses the boundaries of states five times, or even that it is the largest river in North America continent that doesn’t empty into an ocean.
These characteristics may distinguish the 500-mile-long river, but the stunning fact about the Bear River is that it’s managed by three states in relative harmony, absent any volatile water wars.
States fight each other with regularity over water resources, like the Texas and Oklahoma dispute over the Red River Compact that landed before the U.S. Supreme Court, or the Tongue River water rights fight between Montana and Wyoming.
But the Bear River Compact, approved in 1958 and up for mandated 20-year review this fall, has enjoyed decades of minimal controversy.
The lack of fighting is notable, despite the unique needs and political pressures that exist in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, said Bear River Commission engineer-manager Don Barnett.
“The lack of conflict, the cooperation is probably at a maximum on the Bear River. Even though there are competing interests for water supply, states have gotten along extremely well,” he said.
Barnett, who has been with the commission since 1989 and its manager the past seven years, said there are a host of issues that can give rise to disagreement when it comes to managing Bear River resources.
“It doesn’t mean it’s been easy,” he said. “During the negotiating of the compact, there were a lot of arguments going back and forth.”
A provision of the compact is that it be reviewed every 20 years to determine if it needs to be amended.
As part of that process, the nine-member commission is hosting a series of meetings in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming over the next several weeks (including one at the Uinta County Library in Evanston Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m.).
While the meetings are open to the public, they are state-specific and designed to hear issues from engineers over water rights and other resource issues. A Nov. 2 meeting is set specifically in Salt Lake City with anticipation of hearing from groups interested in the Bear River or organizations such as water-user associations.
Seventeen meetings over six years began in 1970 during an amendment process, which requires the legislatures in each state to endorse the finished product and the governors to give their approval. After that, Congress must approve the amended document. That was a 10-year process that ended with President Jimmy Carter’s signature in 1980.
Beyond a compact that has functioned well, Barnett said another unique characteristic of the Bear River is the lack of federal involvement in its 6,900-square-mile drainage.
“There’s been very little federal oversight and involvement in the Bear River basin,” he said. “This has been pretty much left as a states kind of thing.”
Unlike the Colorado River, there are no huge, man-made storage reservoirs along the main stem of the Bear River, which chiefly supplies agricultural water to users in the three states. Evanston draws water from the Bear River, treats it and uses it for drinking water for its residents.
The river is also a component in PacifiCorp’s energy portfolio. It operates Cutler Reservoir in Box Elder County, Utah, and initiated the 107-megawatt Bear River project in the early 1900s for flood control, irrigation and hydroelectric generation.
Under the compact, the states share the river’s water according to the provisions carved out in three separate divisions.
Both Idaho and Utah are in the lower division. Over the years, Utah’s rampant population growth and increasing urbanization prompted concerns in Idaho, where officials worried their neighbor would develop water to the point it interfered with Idaho’s water rights.
Areas such as Grace, Idaho, and Soda Springs remain chiefly rural.
“Neither Idaho [nor] Utah has come close to developing anywhere near their allocation,” Barnett said. But new growth, he added, will bring new demands.
And given the long years of drought and increasing awareness and concern over water scarcity, Barnett said there’s likely to be robust discussion among commissioners and others regarding the future of Bear River.
Utah is already under political pressure regarding the planned Bear River development project, which would divert up to 220,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Bear River to shore up future water supplies.
Critics worry about its potential impacts to the Great Salt Lake, which receives roughly 850,000 acre-feet of water from the Bear River when it empties.
Utah pressed the pause button on its pursuit of the project, for now, given water savings made via conservation practices of Utahns.