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Upstream battle: Possibility of Northern Utah dam projects threatens native trout populations

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In the cool waters of the Logan River swim one of the strongest populations of the Bonneville cutthroat trout in the state of Utah, but discussions of a dam in the Temple Fork area of the Logan Canyon may threaten that population’s livelihood.

Named the state fish in 1997, the trout’s numbers, once so prolific in Utah waterways as to be considered a saving grace for starving American Indian populations and Western pioneers, have since dwindled enough to be placed on Utah’s Sensitive Species List.

Once thought to be extinct in the early 1970s, researchers and conservationists have since found a number of thriving populations of the trout in Utah, with those found in the Bear River and its tributaries as one of the most valuable.Utah State University Professor Phaedra Budy, a specialist in fisheries management and aquatic ecology who has researched the trout’s importance to the Logan River and Temple Fork areas, estimates the population to number past 30,000.

“The population is dense and about 99 percent genetically pure,” Budy said. “Because the river is connected, the trout are able to travel to spawning grounds at Spawn Creek and other tributaries unimpeded, keeping the population’s number steady and healthy.”

Despite the population’s strength in the Logan River, the consideration of a dam at the site of Temple Fork, access of which is found about 15 miles up Logan Canyon, is causing concern to those working to preserve the trout’s spawning grounds.

“The Temple Fork area is beautiful,” Cache Anglers President Paul Holden said. “It’s a nice, high country stream. You simply can’t replace it, and the trout is a huge part of that. If a dam goes in that area, the effect that would have on the trout population there would likely be impossible to mitigate.”

”What we need to know now”

The Temple Fork area is one of seven sites facing strong consideration for a dam or reservoir by the Utah Division of Water Resources as part of the Bear River Development Project.

Established in 1991 by the Utah Legislature as the Bear River Development Act, the plan to develop the surface waters of the Bear River and its tributaries in order to provide 220,000 acre-feet of water to multiple areas of the state has been in consideration for some time in response to the state’s growing population. These acre-feet (with a single household using approximately one acre-foot per year) would be divided into allocations for Cache County, the Bear River Water Conservancy District, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District and the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.

“We were originally projected to need that water for 2015, but huge and successful water conservation efforts have pushed the projections back,” UDWR engineer and Bear River Development Project Manager Marisa Egbert explained. “Then we started planning for 2030 expectations, but now we’re hearing we may not need this water until 2040 and beyond.”

Regardless, Egbert and her team are still in the early stages of planning for reservoir possibilities along the Bear River. Egbert said the project started with considering 45 locations along the Bear River which may have been plausible, but those 45 have since been narrowed to seven for further study. Three of these sites are in Cache Valley, including the Temple Fork area, the area above Newton’s Cutler Reservoir and the Cub River west of Richmond. The other four sites are located in Box Elder County, including the area south of Weber Bay, White’s Valley close to Tremonton, Fielding and Portage’s Washakie area — which has seen extensive study since 2006.

Egbert explained the process of determining advantages and disadvantages to each site takes a long amount of time to properly assess, which may take several months of in-depth research.

“It’s more than just how much water the sites could supply if they’re chosen,” Egbert said. “We realize that no matter where we decide to place these reservoirs, there’s going to be an impact. Right now, we’re trying to get an idea of what we need to know now first as a baseline before we can delve deeper into more substantial environmental studies.”

In the case of Temple Fork, Egbert recognized the status of the Bonneville cutthroat trout as a major consideration to keep in mind for the area. However, she said any direct studies on the environmental impact a dam could have on that population will likely not be conducted by the state for another 10 years.

“From the beginning, this project has been somewhat of a moving target,” Egbert said. “We know that these are extensive projects that will have extensive impacts. This isn’t something we can take lightly.”

Although Egbert said it is still too early in the planning process to confirm if Temple Fork will be one of the sites, she said the likelihood of one or more of the Cache Valley sites being chosen is a strong possibility. If sites outside of Cache County are chosen, the state would need to construct a pipeline to send water to the county, or the county would need to adopt water exchanges with surrounding areas to receive water from the project. Both possibilities could be more costly and difficult to manage compared to having the reservoir local to the county.

“If you think of it like a savings account, it’s more preferable to have it closer to you instead of somewhere far off like Florida,” Egbert said. “Having a reservoir in Cache County could be something very important for the county’s control of water usage.”

Restoring the trout

Before the Bonneville cutthroat trout was threatened by the possibility of a dam, the trout already faced an upstream battle in maintaining its populations. The population of the trout was once dangerously low, according to Division of Wildlife Resources Northern Region Aquatics Manager Paul Thompson.“In the mid 1970s, we really thought the population was extinct,” Thompson said. “We didn’t know where we had them at first. After we did some surveying, we found there was actually a lot of the genetically pure population left. Now it’s one of, if not the largest meta population of Bonneville trout you can find anywhere.”Since the 1990s, several state agencies banded together to partner in the Logan region to commit to protecting and enhancing the existing population. Paul Chase, a fish biologist with the U.S. Forest Service who has been involved in trout restoration efforts along the Logan River, said the trout have reclaimed 35 percent of its historical habitats, but have faced natural threats on their way to recovery.

“A number of the remaining trout populations are small and isolated, which makes them susceptible to fires or other large-scale events,” Chase explained. “This makes large connected populations like the Logan River even more important.”

With natural impediments to population growth like habitat alteration, climate change and whirling disease (caused by a parasite which causes skeletal deformities in fish and makes them more vulnerable to predators), as well as natural competition in the form of rainbow trout and non-native brown trout, conservationists have made specific attempts to allow the Bonneville cutthroat a better chance at long-term survival.

Chase said the Spawn Creek and Temple Fork area have seen a number of projects to improve water quality for the trout, the largest of which moved a road adjacent to Temple Fork which was the largest producer of sediment for the Logan River drainage.

In addition, a joint project between Utah State University, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Forest Service and Trout Unlimited held specifically at Spawn Creek, a major spawning ground for the trout, was completed to allow for a study to be done on whirling disease. The organizations built a fence around the Spawn Creek area to keep livestock away, allowing the trout to spawn without predation and avoid extra sedimentation in the water.

Budy said the Spawn Creek area is a major location for the continued survival of the trout, as thousands of trout migrate there annually due to its preferred habitat for egg laying.

“The gravel at Spawn Creek is ideal for spawning thanks to the low gradient,” Budy explained. “The water is slightly warmer and there are fewer predators overall, which makes the area a good place where the young can rear. Since building the containment area, the population has recovered dramatically. It’s been a win-win situation for research and for conservation.”

Another project to remove non-native brown trout from the Right Hand Fork, another tributary of the Logan River, and reintroduce Bonneville cutthroat was completed in 2013 to further increase populations and reduce the risk of further hybridization of the population. Similar to Spawn Creek, the Right Hand Fork’s warm waters in the wintertime and low gradient provide advantages for fish spawning.

“This spring we’ll see some reproduction of the Bonneville trout introduced in that area, so it might be a few more years to see how the reclamation of that fork will tip the scales,” Thompson said.

Thompson said it would be inaccurate to call the trout endangered, but has said its time on the Utah Sensitive Species List has provided major stabilizing benefits for the population and has served as an economic driver drawing fishermen to the area. He said the aesthetic beauty of the canyon, combined with native species of trout, have served to make the region one of the most desirable in the state for fishing.

“We’ve secured dozens of stream miles in the last 20 years, and it’ll only grow,” Thompson said. “I think it just goes to show what can be accomplished when everyone works together.”

A possible challenge

The researchers and conservationists agree the effects a dam at Temple Fork could have on the Bonneville cutthroats in the Logan River present a great danger to the current trout population.“The canyon is already steep for the trout to traverse,” Budy said. “Building a dam would block the fish in and make them unable to reach their preferred spawning grounds, and they would be more at risk to natural dangers. It would effectively inundate them.”Trout Unlimited Bear River Project Manager Jim DeRito said aside from blocking the spawning grounds, a dam could introduce a number of complications to the trout’s livelihood.

“Dams can change the temperature of water entering the river downstream and impact aquatic insect life. That could change the available food resources for the trout,” DeRito said. “Losing the low gradient, low velocity and appropriately sized gravel in Temple Fork would be the most significant impact. If fish do not have a place to spawn the population will eventually start to decline. You can lose juveniles, but you can’t remove the reproductive component and expect the population to survive.”

Holden said the suggestion of building a dam at the Temple Fork site would be particularly dangerous for the growing population of Bear River cutthroat trout, a species genetically distinct from the Bonneville influenced by Yellowstone cutthroat crossovers.

“This split in the species makes it that much more important for there to not be a dam here,” Holden said. “It’s a big surprise the state is considering the site to begin with. You can build a new lake, but you cannot build a new stream. A lot of this has been done without public input, but the Cache Anglers talk about this at all our meetings. There’s a big battle in the sense that proactive restoration attempts may not be enough to stop a dam from coming in. If the trout is listed as endangered, it would reduce the chances of this being built.”

However, Egbert assured talks of any construction are premature. As the project remains in the planning stages, the state will continue to consider all environmental effects and possibilities of mitigation, but there is no intention to completely halt the project. A hotly contested bill approved by the Legislature this year set aside funding for the Bear River Development Act, in addition to the Lake Powell Pipeline. It is awaiting Gov. Gary Herbert’s signature.

“Between our growing population and the state’s natural dryness, we don’t have the luxury of taking this off the table,” she said. “We’re looking at a big puzzle with lots of pieces, and this project is one of those pieces. It would be irresponsible of us not to carefully consider every option we have available.”

Clayton Gefre is the County Council reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at cgefre@hjnews.com or 435-792-7234.

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