Bear River Watershed Description
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The Bear River Basin, which is located in northeastern Utah, southeastern Idaho, and southwestern Wyoming, comprises 7,500 square miles of mountain and valley lands including 2,700 in Idaho, 3,300 in Utah, and 1,500 in Wyoming. The Bear River crosses state boundaries five times and is the largest stream in the western hemisphere that does not empty into the ocean. It ranges in elevation from over 13,000 to 4,211 feet and is unique in that it is entirely enclosed by mountains, thus forming a huge basin with no external drainage outlets. The Bear River is the largest tributary to the Great Salt Lake.
Agricultural lands throughout the basin, both developed and undeveloped, as well as urban areas are located in valleys along the main stem of the river and its tributaries. In addition to these private lands, the Bear River watershed includes vast amounts of federal (both Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service) and state lands that serve a range of natural and agricultural functions, each of which generates unique impacts and demands on water resources.
Major water uses in the Bear River Basin include agriculture, irrigation, power generation, recreation, and municipal and industrial uses. The Bear River Commission was formed by compact in 1958 to allocate water use throughout the basin. The Bear River's average annual inflow to the Great Salt Lake is nearly 1.2 million acre feet, and with this plentiful water supply, the Bear River Basin is one of the few areas remaining in the state of Utah with a significant amount of developable water. It is anticipated that Bear River water will eventually be developed to satisfy the growing needs of areas within and outside the basin. Urban growth along the Wasatch front, primarily in Salt Lake, Davis, and Weber counties, has planners projecting a need to import Bear River water in the next 20 to 30 years.
Currently, 52 streams and 9 lakes in the basin are listed on 303(d) lists of impaired waters in three states: Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Water quality problems include sediment, nutrients, fecal coliform bacteria, low dissolved oxygen, and high water temperature. Pollutant sources include animal feeding operations, grazing, agriculture, wastewater treatment, degraded stream banks, urban development, roads, phosphate mining, oil and gas exploration, and logging. Eleven TMDLs have been completed, with an additional 42 presently in development. Funds from EPA 319, USDA EQIP and other programs, as well as considerable landowner match, have been used to implement past and ongoing water quality projects throughout the watershed. Find out more about TMDLs in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
Water quality management in the Bear River Basin is complicated by the transboundary nature of the river, which meanders through three states and two EPA Regions with multiple jurisdictions and planning authorities. This has resulted in fragmentation in water quality improvement efforts. The ad hoc Bear River Water Quality Task Force was formed in 1993 to facilitate management of this multi-state watershed. The Bear River Commission created a water quality committee, which provides a more formal arrangement between the water quality heads of the three states. The Bear River Water Quality Task Force now serves as unofficial staff to this committee, which has enhanced interstate communication and cooperation concerning water quality issues throughout the basin. The Bear River Water Quality Task Force and water quality committee have identified the following needs for more fully integrated watershed management: innovative and cost-effective water quality solutions, a common source of merged datasets and planning tools, and a means to identify impacts and predict responses of program implementation on a basin-wide basis.
To learn more about the major subwatersheds within the Bear River Watershed or about the watershed collectively, click in the list below or on the map above.