Those who say we live in a desert stretch the truth a bit. Twenty-five miles to the east of Cache Valley, the ridges of the Bear River Range often receive 50 inches of precipitation a year. If you head the other direction, however, the Great Salt Lake desert is lucky to get 5 inches of precipitation. Cities in Cache Valley and along Utah’s Wasatch Front benefit from mountains that lift stormfronts and wring the rain and snow from the atmosphere.
Logan and Preston have year around water supplies because much of the precipitation we receive comes in the form of snow. This year’s first big snow happened just before Thanksgiving and snowflakes will likely continue to accumulate at higher elevations through April. Snow takes time to melt and make the trip downhill into rivers. The delay between when the snow falls an is delivered to cities located at the mouths of canyons, keeps our rivers flowing and our lakes and reservoirs full through early summer. As a result, we have much of the water we need to grow crops and for recreation into the summer.
This important pattern may be changing as the climate is altered. While there is uncertainty associated with how much precipitation this region will get in the future, it is highly likely that the temperatures will increase. Higher air temperatures means a greater percent of the precipitation will fall as rain and the snow will melt more quickly. If this happens, there will be a greater disconnect between when water is needed (summer) and when it runs off the mountains (winter and spring).
How and when precipitation falls affects fish and wildlife. High water years are good for waterfowl, quail, and antelope. Lower snowfall years increase populations of elk, turkey, and forest grouse. If temperatures continue to increase, chukar may be more at home in the Bear River Range. Drier sagebrush flats may pose a problem to sage grouse populations.
Not only do hunters, anglers and other recreationists love water, so do city dwellers. Chicago has Lake Michigan. San Antonio has its River Walk. Closer to home, Utah’s largest city is named after the saline lake it borders. Currently Logan City and Cache Valley residents are working to implement the Logan River Blue Trail Master Plan. As this plan is realized, not only will this improve angling opportunities in the river, it will offer a venue for boaters, tubers, hikers, bird watchers and other citizens that love rivers. Beyond this, it will make the area a better place to live.
Who gets the final say in how water is used is determined by those who have the water rights. Incentives to conserve water are messy, as any unused water goes to the holder of the next most senior water right. Water conservation can grow more crops, expand industry and supply more houses, but it doesn’t mean more water will stay in rivers or get to the Great Salt Lake. Some decisions on how water is stored and used, benefits hunters and anglers. Irrigated fields provide food for pheasants and geese. Water stored in reservoirs provide anglers opportunities to fish for bass, walleye, lake trout and other species that would not otherwise be present.
Given the benefits, there remains many questions about how these aquatic systems should be managed when water is in the stream channel. Many larger rivers are navigable in fact, so their management is controlled by the federal government. Access to smaller rivers is controlled by the state. How Idaho manages these smaller streams is very different from Utah. Important questions about conserving water still remain, such as how much water should be allowed to make it to the Great Salt Lake and who should be responsible for keeping our smaller rivers and wetlands free of pollution.
Over the next couple decades there will be lots of decisions about how this region’s water will be divided. Decisions will range from should a pipeline from Lake Powell to St George be built, how to account for the over-allocation of the Snake River’s water in Southeast Idaho, and what should the new line on the Cache County property tax bills be spent on. These choices not only affect your hunting and fishing opportunities, but the quality of life in the valley and across the west. So, the next time you see a snowflake descending in a storm, spend a little time thinking about how the water it will become might be best used.