Bear Lake’s Lifton pumping station prepares for drought

The Lifton Pump Station pumps water into the Bear River.

BEAR LAKE – The recent rains have helped Bear Lake’s Lifton pumping station to hold off moving water into the Bear River until May 1. The pumps were going to be turned on April 26. Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) hydrologists said runoff this year is extremely poor, replicating historic lows.

The Lifton Pump Station pumps water stored in Bear Lake into the Bear River for agricultural use and to generate power.

The maximum pumping capability of Lifton Station, located in Idaho at the north end of the lake, is 2,000 cubic feet per second (about 15,000 gallons).

“RMP officials notified irrigation companies that we might open the Bear Lake Outlet Canal on Monday, April 26, but that estimate has been updated to Saturday, May 1,” said RMP spokesman David Eskelsen. “We are holding coordination calls with irrigators and stakeholders twice a week to get an update on near-term increases or changes in irrigation diversions and to provide information on Bear River flows.”

In some years, the power company has been able to open the Outlet Canal without pumping because extra flow from upstream of Bear Lake was available. This year, however, there is no extra water so pumping will begin when the Outlet opens.

RMP hydrologists forecast when they need to close the gates in January and February by looking at the snowpack and soil moisture.

“It’s about where we expected the lake level to be this time of year,” Eskelsen said. “When the soil moisture is low, and we get less snowmelt, we know when it is time to turn on the pumps.”

RMP expects to deliver the full 245,000-acre foot allocated for irrigation for this year’s growing season.

Rocky Mountain Power’s contracts to deliver irrigation water serve 150,000 acres of farm land along the Bear River in Utah and Idaho, which produce crops valued at approximately $45 million annually.

“The Lifton Pumping Station goes back to 1908 before Rocky Mountain was even organized. Some earlier electric companies used Bear Lake to store spring runoff,” the spokesman said. “Originally, Lifton station was used for agriculture and power generation in Utah and Idaho.”

The power company has a perpetual obligation to honor the original deal for agriculture and to generate power along the Bear River.

“There are currently five small hydro projects that generate power for RMP and ensure minimum flow the rest of the time,” Eskelsen said. “The company has responsibility to develop a forecast and present our expectations in a public meeting. We are allocated the top 23 feet of Bear Lake.”

The hydroelectric projects along the Bear River are at Cutler Dam, Soda Springs, Grace and Oneida.

RMP had a series of meetings and spoke with a diverse group of people including the irrigation companies and people who live around the lake about the lake elevation.

“In 1958, the Bear River Compact settled issues regarding the use of the Bear River among the states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming,” Eskelsen explained. “In subsequent years, operation of the system changed to primarily serve irrigation and flood control needs.”

The Lifton Pump Station at the adjacent to North Beach State Park in Idaho pumps water from Bear Lake into the Bear River.

There should be enough water to offer full allocations this growing season. No one should be without water and there should be enough water to take care of allocations for the next couple of years.

The Bear Lake system is designed to help the agriculture industry and electrical generation when droughts occur.

The Bear Lake elevation as of April 1, 2021 was 5,918 ft. The lowest recorded lake level was in 1935 when it was at 5,902 and the highest recorded lake elevation was in 1921 at 5,923.

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