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High Uintas Wilderness reservoirs

(Ed note: This is Part I of a series on the High Uintas Wilderness and the management dilemmas presented by the extant small reservoirs that were constructed at the turn of the century. Part I lays out the conflict in general terms. Part II will examine specific conflicts and possible solutions.)

From the turn of the century through the early 1920s almost two dozen small water storage reservoirs were constructed on many of the South Slope drainages. Today about 16 exist within the High Uintas Wilderness (HUW) on the Lake Fork, Yellowstone, Swift Creek and Uinta River drainages. There are a couple of reservoirs in the backcountry on the Whiterocks and there were a dozen reservoirs on the upper Provo River within the Lakes backcountry.

All of these reservoirs were constructed by horse and wagon. Many are master designs, such as Weir Lake at the headwaters of the Provo River.

It should be noted water developments like these are common in a number of designated wildernesses in the West. The Wilderness Act allows them to be managed in wilderness with the intent of minimizing their impacts upon wilderness and prohibits any construction or reconstruction of these reservoirs without Presidential approval.

The Central Utah Water Completion Act of 1992 authorized and required the stabilization as natural inflow/ outflow lakes of all of the high mountain reservoirs in the HUW and the upper Provo River. The Kamas Ranger District has completed this task on the upper Provo River within the Lakes backcountry and our proposed Mt. Watson Wilderness (see The Lynx, 12/98, HUPC Newsletters, 10/98, 4/98 and 4/97).

But ironically, and in spite of long standing support from the Forest Service, the remo-val of these HUW reservoirs has been bogged down in the rhetoric of water rights, the paralysis of bureaucracy and the complexity of the CUP.

The CUP is a very complex and controversial project (the UPALCO and Uinta draft EIS table of contents are each about 50 pages long!) The UPALCO unit consists of the Yellowstone and Lake Fork drainages on the South Slope of the Uintas. The essence of the proposed alternative, referred to as Talmage, is to construct the Crystal Ranch Reservoir on the Yellowstone River, partially on the Ashley National Forest, to enlarge the extant Big Sand Wash Reservoir, to replace a number of diversion dams, rehabilitate a number of canals, provide instream flows, habitat enhancement, and, of critical importance, stabilize ten high mountain lakes on the Yellowstone River within the High Uintas Wilderness.

On the other hand, the Twin Potts Alternative stabilizes all twelve high mountain lakes on both the Lake Fork and Yellowstone Rivers within the HUW, accomplishes all of the water management goals without damaging the Yellowstone River and produces far fewer negative impacts to wildlife habitat. Under this alternative the 12 lakes which would be breached, rehabilitated and stabilized to provide for a natural inflow/outflow regime include: Bluebell, Drift, Five Point, Superior and Milk on the Yellowstone River; Farmers, East Timothy, White Miller, Deer and Water Lily on Swift Creek; and Clements, Island, Kidney and Brown Duck on Lake Fork. While the decision is not yet final, selection of the Talmage alternative makes no sense.

The Uintah Unit is as long and complex. In essence the draft proposed alternative would construct the Lower Uintah Reservoir, which would not be on Forest Service lands, do a bunch of diversion dams and canal rehabilitations, and stabilize five HUW Uinta River lakes: Atwood, Chain(2), Fox and Crescent. No other proposed alternative accomplishes the HUW stabilization.

Unfortunately neither alternative discusses the need for water conservation or proposes/ im- poses meaningful water conservation strategies.

Is this an issue of water rights or wilderness values? Can they be separated? The Forest Service seems to be suggesting it is imperative to protect water rights that are stored in these reservoirs while now agreeing the reservoirs and wilderness values are no longer in sync. As we see it, it is time to protect wilderness values while assuring water rights issues are adequately ad- dressed. One crucial element of this discussion is water conservation and a clear evaluation of actually how important water stored in these small reservoirs is to downstream agricultural interests.

Meanwhile, many of these high elevation HUW reservoirs are in need of significant reconstruction. Already the Forest Service has had to insist Fox and Bluebell Lakes be drawn down significantly because of hazardous dam outlet conditions (see HUPC Newsletter, 4/98). Kidney Lake is in need of major dam repairs as well (see HUPC Newsletter, 12/97).

Therein rests a dramatic conflict. If water/agricultural interests prevail and the Forest Service decides to allow these reservoirs to be maintained, every single reservoir, not just the three noted above, will have to be reconstructed to meet minimum state safety hazard ratings. The dams will be set in place as permanent structures and will need permanent motorized access to allow for adequate safety inspection to meet the hazard rating.

That is unacceptable to wilderness supporters and the Forest Service, not to mention an anathema to wildness!

Furthermore, to allow the level of construction needed for each reservoir would require approval by the Chief of the Forest Service, Secretary of Agriculture and President.

Even though the reservoir issue is tied to the CUP, it is equally clear these issues are independent and must be addressed vigorously by the Forest Service. It is in everybody s interest to pursue a collaborative effort to decommission these reservoirs and return the impounded lakes back to their natural inflow/outflow hydrologic regime. It is the only way wilderness values can be met while assuring water rights are protected.

Dick Carter

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