Bear Lake experiences highest rise in water levels in 40 years

Sheldon Hansen’s father bought Bear Lake beachfront property in Garden City 50 years ago, when Hansen was a teenager. At this summer home, Hansen played volleyball, learned to water ski and just enjoyed the lake. Hansen – who on July 4, 2009, sat on his porch and counted 192 cars parked on the beach – said not only is he not worried about high lake levels this year, but he welcomes it.”I’m just sitting here cheering that all that beach has disappeared and we’ve got some privacy,” he said. Bear Lake is experiencing its highest rise in water levels in more than 40 years. In 1965, the lake rose 7.68 feet, setting a record. This year, the lake set a new record, rising almost 8 feet to total at 5918.1 feet on June 22. Experts expect the lake, which was recorded at 5,919.14 feet July 1, to reach 5921 feet by the end of July. “You can just about sit and watch the water come up,” said Claudia Cottle, co-executive director of Bear Lake Watch, an environmental group interested in protecting the lake. With the higher water levels, beachfront property owners can access the water more easily. Streams will connect more directly with the lake, which is better for endemic fish spawning. The change in water levels may mean a change in how day trippers use the lake this summer. “People love Bear Lake. It’s part of their summer, and they’ll still come,” Cottle said.The lake now covers a lot of area once used as beach. Some state parks are still open, and many commercial areas still have some beach, but many popular places no longer have sand for recreation, like the southwest end along the highway where the water is up to the rocks. The water level has been low at Bear Lake for almost a decade, allowing trees and other plants to grow on the empty lake bed by the shore. Now that the water level has risen again, the trees become submerged and hidden under the water. This makes it difficult to navigate the waters, Cottle said.Swimming isn’t the only recreational activity being effected at Bear Lake. Some of the higher canyon roads are not open due to large amounts of snow pack, which affects campers, bikers and ATV riders. Cottle suggested checking with the Forest Service before planning such activities this season. Last year, when the water level was low, families would come to the lake and sometimes park their car directly on the beach. That means this year there will be a lot less parking.”They’re really going to have to go to the state parks to park near the lake and access the water,” Cottle said. Bear Lake beach users should expect to have to pay for parking this year and be aware that they may not be able to park close to the water on a busy day. Businesses in town are anxious to see how the water level will affect their business. Some worry that less beach will mean less hungry swimmers to eat at restaurants or buy T-shirts. However, Cottle said since beach space is limited, more visitors might spend their time in town instead of out on the water, which would be good for local businesses, but no one really knows what to expect.The lake itself could feel the effects of the higher water level. A higher lake level means more sediment in the water. Cottle said experts are developing ways to collect data and analyze how the high water level will affect the lake. When the water levels are higher, this means the make up of the water is different than normal. Water sources, such as the Bear River, might have a higher percentage of water in the lake than usual, bringing its unique set of nutrients and sediments with it. A high water level can change a body of water’s chemistry and biology, Cottle said, and the long-term effects of the water level are still unknown.

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