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Utah Division of History

How 5 of the largest land reclamation projects in Utah came together

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Sep. 9, 2018 at 11:10 a.m.

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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah history for's Historic section.SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other national officials descended on the Dollar Ridge Fire burn scar weeks after the large wildfire erupted east of the Strawberry Reservoir. They helped assess the damage, create something called a Burn Severity Map and saw what possibly might be done for the future rebuilding of the area.

They saw the destruction first-hand and even gave Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials the first images of the damage done to the wildlife in the area.

Interesting enough, the fire destroyed more than 100 square miles not far from the bureau’s first Utah project, the Strawberry River Project, and also near the state’s largest project, the Central Utah Project.

The bureau has shaped much of northern and eastern Utah since 1906, and could return to the fire site to help rehabilitate it as well, in the future.

Here is a look at the five largest federal reclamation projects in Utah history.

Central Utah Project

This complex project was created to enhance irrigation throughout the Uinta Basin, but was not without controversy.

The discussion for such a project began after Utah and other states agreed to the Colorado River Compact in 1922, which divided water usage of the river across the western U.S. states, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia. Nevada and California completed water projects in the 1930s, and the other states along the river path discussed their own plans.

The first discussions for dams at Flaming Gorge and Dewey (located in southeastern Utah) were brought up as early as 1930, but it wasn't until 1946 that Sen. Abe Murdock introduced the Central Utah Project to Congress, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia.

There were some agreements approved for the area. The project really began when Congress signed the $760 million Colorado River Storage Project in 1956. However, the location of the Echo Park and Split Mountain dams inside Dinosaur National Monument, as well as feasibility questions and long-term costs to the public for the massive project, led to criticism at the time, the Utah History Encyclopedia stated.

Work near the Steinaker Dam as seen in this undated photo. The dam and reservoir, which was completed in 1962, was one of the many portions of the Central Utah Project.

Because it was such a large project, it was broken up into seven units. There was the Vernal unit that had the Steinaker Dam, which was completed in 1962. The Upalco unit and the Big Sand Wash Dam, completed in 1963. Red Fleet Reservoir highlighted the Jensen unit project.

The Bonneville unit was the biggest of the units, and began in 1967 with Starvation Dam, but by 1985, the unit projects had exceeded $2 billion in costs, according to the Utah History Encyclopedia.

The project lingered into the 1990s until Congress intervened by signing the Central Utah Project Completion Act in 1992 to cap the project, after growing complaints about costs, according to the Department of the Interior.

In a history of the project, the Bureau of Reclamation noted the changes axed several plans and units for the area. However, patch-up work still continues to this day. For example, the bureau announced it began modifications to repair a slope failure at the Steinaker Reservoir in July.

Weber Basin Project

The Weber Basin Project includes a series of dams, reservoirs and other projects, according to the bureau.

Christopher McCune wrote in a history of the project for the Bureau of Reclamation that the project took more than 25 years to complete but helped irrigate Ogden, Bountiful and Layton as those cities grew.

Project planning actually began in 1903, a year after the bureau was founded. However, the project wasn't formally brought up until 1948. It was altered a bit but then the project was authorized by President Harry S. Truman in 1949, McCune wrote.

The project was completed in 1969.

Work on the Pineview Dam as a part of the Ogden River Project in 1935. While the dam wasn't technically a part of the Ogden Basin Project, enlargement of it was helped as a part of the basin project, according to a report in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation history.

Moon Lake Project

Located on the north side of the Duchesne River, this project provided irrigation water to 75,256 acres of farmland in Duchesne and Uintah counties, about 140 miles east of Salt Lake City, according to a history of the project compiled by Zachary Redmond for the bureau.

The area had very little prehistoric human settlement compared to most of the state, but that changed as the centuries continued and then the Ute tribe settled in that section of land, according to the bureau history. Later, early Utah settlers began to claim the land where the Utes lived, and started to move there for farming in 1905 when the area was added as a part of the Homestead Act, according to Redmond.

A water shortage began due to both the tribe and settlers sharing the water, leading to the Utah Storage Commission reaching out to the Bureau of Reclamation in 1927 to see if a water project could be completed there.

A formal proposal came six years later and the project began as a part of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, as the Great Depression roared on. That act was ruled unconstitutional two years later, but the project was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Nov. 6, 1935, according to Redmond.

Construction on the Moon Lake Dam began in 1937 and was completed in 1938 — although some post-construction work was done afterward.

Provo River Project

This project provided irrigation for 48,156 acres of land in Utah, Salt Lake and Wasatch counties — creating a larger drinking supply for the cities in those counties.

Workers construct a tunnel Deer Creek Dam in this undated photo. Construction of the dam lasted from 1938 until 1941. (Photo: Utah State History)

Tina Bell wrote in a history of the project that it took 20 years to finish. The project was first investigated in 1922 but wasn't authorized until 1935. Construction began in 1938 and ended in 1958.

The key structure of the project was the Deer Creek Dam, which forms the popular Deer Creek Reservoir (now a state park.)

The Strawberry Valley Project

This was the first Utah reclamation project and took two decades to complete, but helped in solving farming problems in the area. Utah’s first pioneer settlers used the state’s eastern rivers and streams for irrigation in the first few decades, but struggled because the rivers and streams were largely runoff-based and water levels dipped in the summer, according to a history of the project compiled by Eric Stene in 1995.

Due to increasing populations of settlers and more farmland to irrigate, the water scarcity increased, Stene wrote. The plan for the project formed around 1900 when two Utah politicians visited the valley on a camping trip.

Stene wrote that Henry Gardner and John S. Lewis put together a plan for a reservoir there, which would take water through the Wasatch Divide that separated the Colorado Basin from the Great Basin. The first plans were filed in 1902, but the project wasn’t approved until Dec. 15, 1905. Work on the project started in 1906, but was not without controversy.

A the tunnel looking toward portal 1200 feet away near Strawberry Reservoir. The tunnel was a part of the Strawberry Valley Project, which was the state's first reclamation project. (Photo: Utah State History).

The reservoir area for the project occupied land that belonged to the Uintah Indian Reservation. But Congress turned the reservation land over to the Bureau of Reclamation just before work began, according to Stene.

According to the bureau, the project ended up encompassing 45,000 acres, or about 70.3 square miles, of irrigable land and became one of the first bureau projects to develop hydroelectric energy. In all, it included the Soldier Creek and Spanish Fork Division dams, as well as a canal system.

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