The Bear River Compact

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 42° 9' 11.6039", -111° 9' 24.917"
Total Area 19,42519,425 km²
7,499.993 mi²
Climate Descriptors Semi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type), Arid/desert (Köppen B-type)
Predominent Land Use Descriptors agricultural- cropland and pasture, conservation lands, urban, urban- high density
Important Uses of Water Agriculture or Irrigation, Domestic/Urban Supply, Hydropower Generation, Industry - consumptive use, Industry - non-consumptive use, Recreation or Tourism


The Bear River charts a winding, 490-mile horseshoe-shaped course from the Utita Mountains in eastern Utah, up into Wyoming and Idaho, and then back down into Utah where it empties into the Great Salt Lake, 90 miles from its point of origin. The river goes back and forth across state borders several times, making a total of five crossings.

The Bear River is heavily developed and is used primarily for agricultural irrigation. The river is also utilized to generate hydropower and, increasingly, as a municipal water source. The State of Utah has plans to develop the lower stretch of the Bear River to provide water for the rapidly growing population of the Wasatch Front. The river provides water to several important wetland areas and accounts for 60% of the freshwater inflow to the Great Salt Lake.

Allocation and management of the Bear River is governed by the Bear River Compact, an interstate agreement between Utah, Wyoming and Idaho that became law on March 17th, 1958. The Bear River Commission was established to oversee and carry out the Compact. Each state has three representatives on the Commission in addition to a tenth non-voting, federally-appointed commissioner. The current version of the compact, known as the Amended Bear River Compact, was instated February 8th, 1980 and updated in 1998.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

Geographic Facts

The Bear River originates in the Uinta Mountains in eastern Utah. It briefly flows north into the southwestern corner of Wyoming before crossing back into northern Utah. As the river continues northward it veers back into Wyoming and then begins a northwestern trajectory as it crosses into the southeastern corner of Idaho. It passes through the Bear Lake Valley where a series of canals connect the river to Bear Lake, which is used as a water storage reservoir and also for hydropower generation. The river turns south at Soda Springs and winds through the Cache Valley, eventually crossing back into northern Utah and ultimately emptying into the eastern side of the Great Salt Lake, 90 miles from its headwaters.

The vast majority of the Bear River’s water derives from precipitation that comes in the form of snowfall from the mountains surrounding the basin. An estimated 4 million acre-feet of the precipitation originates in Utah, 2.3 million and 2.0 million acre-feet come from Idaho and Wyoming, respectively. [1] The Bear River is the Great Salt Lake’s biggest source of fresh water, making up about 60% of the lake’s inflow.[2] It is approximately 490 miles in length and drains an area of 6,900 square miles.



Irrigation has been the primary human use of the Bear River since it began to be developed in the mid 1800s. Since then, the river has also become a source of hydropower and municipal water. As the Bear River Basin has become more populated in recent years, and land that was previously agricultural or undeveloped is being converted into housing, a growing portion of the river’s flow is being used for human consumption, although irrigation usage has not decreased. Additionally, the Bear River provides habitat for species such as Bonneville trout and is an important source of freshwater for the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding wetlands.


Irrigation accounts for the vast majority of withdrawals from the Bear River.[1] The river currently irrigates half a million acres of land, and has been used for agricultural purposes since the 1860s.[3] A 2009 study by the Utah Division of Water Resources measured over 250,000 acres of irrigated land in the Bear River Basin within the state’s boundaries. The majority of irrigated crop land in Utah is used for alfalfa (33.53%), grass hay (21.35%), grain (17.5%), pasture (17.18%) or corn (8.63%).[4] Similar crops are grown in the Wyoming and Idaho portions of the Basin. During the May to September growing season, only five to six inches of rain fall in the lower elevation areas of the Basin. Average crop requirements during this time are 20 to 30 inches. Water impounded from the Bear River is used to make up the difference. [5]

Power Generation and the Bear Lake Reservoir

Over its 490-mile course from the Unita Mountains to the Great Salt Lake, the Bear River drops roughly 9,000 feet in elevation. The river’s inertia has been seized to generate hydroelectric power since early in the 20th Century. Today there are six hydroelectric plants along the river. [5]

Bear Lake is the most significant manmade alteration to the Bear River’s flow. The 110 square-mile lake straddles the eastern edge of the Utah-Idaho border and is connected to the Bear River by a series of inflowing and outflowing canals.[1] The Bear River was naturally connected to Bear Lake roughly 12,000 years ago, but the waterbodies became separated as the West grew more arid at the end of the last ice age.[6] The lake’s potential for water storage and irrigation was identified in the late 1800s and in the 1910s the Telluride Power Company constructed several canals between the lake and the river.

The lake’s storage capacity has been increased by a series of levies and is currently estimated at 6,500,000 acre-feet. Water released from the lake irrigates over 150,000 acres and is responsible for 94% of the hydropower generated by the Bear River.[6] Utah Power and Light is currently responsible for the management of lake levels, although their decisions are heavily regulated by the Bear River Compact. Nearly the entire flow of the Bear River is diverted into Bear Lake, with the exception of extremely high flow years. [1] The system of using Bear Lake to store and release water from the Bear River has helped turn the river into a year-round water source in spite of its highly seasonal flow patterns.

Municipal and Industrial Usage

When compared with irrigation, municipal and industrial (M&I) depletions make up a small percentage of withdrawals from the Bear River. In Utah, an estimated water usage budget published in 2004 by the state’s Division of Water Resources allocated 21,000 acre-feet for M&I depletions. 536,000 and 340,000 acre-feet were estimated for agricultural depletions and wetland/riparian depletions, respectively. A remainder of 1,200,000 acre-feet flowed into the Great Salt Lake. [7]

Large population increases are projected throughout the Bear River Basin, especially within the Wasatch Front and around Bear Lake. Utah has plans to develop and store 220,000 acre-feet of water from the lower Bear River to meet future demand projections.[3]

Environmental Needs

The Bear River accounts for nearly 2/3rds of the freshwater inflow to the Great Salt Lake, a highly saline lake that supports a simple but productive ecosystem that includes brine shrimp, brine flies and several species of algae. Over 257 species of birds, many of them migratory, utilize the lake and its surrounding wetlands, including the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, an 80,000 acre preserve of marshes and open water. Prior to the river’s development, an estimated 1,750,000 acre-feet of Bear River water flowed into the Great Salt Lake annually. Today the number is closer to one million acre-feet.[3]

The Bear River is also habitat for the Bonneville cutthroat trout, a native species that has seen its numbers fall due to dams and other impoundments along the river though efforts are being made to remediate some of these impacts. [8]

The Bear River Compact

Pre Compact

The need for an interstate agreement between Utah, Wyoming and Idaho regarding management of the Bear River became clear during a drought that lasted from 1931 to 1935.[9] Conflicts arose between upstream and downstream users over storage rights (especially regarding the Bear Lake reservoir) and irrigation allowances.[10] During this period Utah Power and Light was relying on Bear Lake releases for an estimated 75% of their system-wide power generation. [9]

The three states first met to discuss joint management of the river in 1943. The approach of adopting a compact was seen as preferable to federal legislation or litigation. The United States Constitution allows for the formation of interstate compacts, which must ultimately be approved by congress. Formal negotiations began in 1946 and lasted nine years. [10]

First Compact

The first Bear River Compact was enacted into law on March 17th, 1958. In the agreement, the management of the river was split into three sections: the Upper Division (from the Unita Mountains to Pixley Dam in Wyoming), the Middle Division (from Pixley Dam to Stewart Dam in Idaho), and the Lower Division (from Stewart Dam to the Great Salt Lake, including Bear Lake).

The compact included allocations for surface water diversion, which only apply during times of shortage if divertable flow drops below predetermined levels.[10] Allocation is treated differently in each of the three divisions.

In the Upper Division, drought-time divertable flow allocation is determined by the percentage of irrigable acres in each state: 58.9% in Wyoming and 41.1% in Utah. The original compact set storage allocations for the Upper Division as well: 324 acre-feet in Idaho, 11,850 acre-feet in Utah and 2,150 acre-feet in Wyoming.

The Central Division uses similar provisions to divide Bear River waters between Wyoming and Idaho. Irrigation acreage determines flow allocations, with 43% going to Idaho and 57% going to Wyoming.

In original compact does not include flow allocations in the Lower Division. This was primarily because, at the time of negotiations, the Bear Lake reservoir system that had been developed early in the century had almost never failed to provide enough water for to meet the needs of all downstream users (with the exception of a drought year in 1934). The negotiators opted to avoid the potential controversies of divvying up allocations between Idaho and Utah users in the Lower Division. A priority system was included in the compact in case of controversies between Idaho and Utah users of the downstream waters. The compact also contained provisions establishing minimum “irrigation reserve” Bear Lake levels and ensured that future upstream development would not affect them.[10]

Updated Compact

The terms of the original compact stipulate that the document be amended at intervals of no less than 20 years. The Amended Bear River Compact was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on February 8th, 1980. This document was updated by the Bear River Commission in 1998.[10]

The Amended Compact granted significant additional storage rights above Bear Lake to Utah, Wyoming and Idaho with the provision that additional storage not infringe upon the allocations to downstream users during times of shortage. Utah and Idaho were both granted the right to develop additional water in the Lower Division downstream of Bear Lake (125,000 acre-feet in Idaho and 275,000 acre-feet in Utah).[10]

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  1. ^ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Sehlke, Gerald, and Jake Jacobson. 2005. "System dynamics modeling of transboundary systems: the bear river basin model." Ground Water 43, no. 5: 722-730.
  2. ^ Utah Water Research Laboratory and Utah State Univeresity. 2011. "Bear River Watershed Description." - Bear River Watershed.
  3. ^ 3.0 3.1 3.2 Bear River Commission. 2013. "Seventeenth Biennial Report." .
  4. ^ Bear River Commission. 2009. “2009 Depletions Update.”
  5. ^ 5.0 5.1 Utah Department of Natural Resources. 2010. “Bear River Watershed” – Great Salt Lake Information System.
  6. ^ 6.0 6.1 Palacios, Patsy; Luecke, Chris; and Robinson, Justin (2007) "History of human impact on Bear Lake," Natural Resources and Environmental Issues: Vol. 14, Article 4.
  7. ^ Utah Division of Water Resources. 2004. “Bear River Basin: Planning for the Future” Utah State Water Plans.
  8. ^ Hydropower Reform Coalition. 2009. “Restoration of the Bear River, Idaho” Hydropower Reform Coalition Success Story.
  9. ^ 9.0 9.1 Jibson, Wallace N. 1991. “History of the Bear River Compact” Bear River Commission.
  10. ^ 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Boyce, Jeff. 1996. "Wrestling with the bear: A compact approach to water allocation." BYU Journal Of Public Law 10, no. 2: 301.

Facts about "The Bear River Compact"RDF feed
Area19,425 km² (7,499.993 mi²) +
ClimateSemi-arid/steppe (Köppen B-type) + and Arid/desert (Köppen B-type) +
Geolocation42° 9' 11.6039", -111° 9' 24.917"Latitude: 42.1532233124
Longitude: -111.156921387
Land Useagricultural- cropland and pasture +, conservation lands +, urban + and urban- high density +
Water UseAgriculture or Irrigation +, Domestic/Urban Supply +, Hydropower Generation +, Industry - consumptive use +, Industry - non-consumptive use + and Recreation or Tourism +