Importing An Oasis Along the Wasatch Front

Utah is the second driest state in the nation. The Wasatch Front (“Front”) is an eighty-mile stretch centered around Salt Lake City that encompasses 90% of the state’s population. The Front is expected to nearly double in the next thirty years. The self-proclaimed “Greatest Snow on Earth” in the picturesque Wasatch Mountains has sufficiently quenched the Front’s thirst until this point, but population projections are spurring innovative water delivery approaches, namely the Central Utah Water Project (“Project”).

The Project is a trans-basin diversion bringing water from the Colorado River Basin in the eastern part of the state to the western slopes of the Wasatch Mountains. It is the state’s largest and most comprehensive water resource undertaking with projected costs in excess of $3 billion. The project will allow Utah to develop a major portion of its allocated share of Colorado River water (Utah is annually allocated roughly 1.4 million acre-feet) for beneficial use in the state’s epicenter.

The Project was authorized by Congress back in 1956 under the Colorado River Storage Project Act and was supposed to be constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation. However, construction stagnated due to engineering complexities, complicated environmental analysis, and a lack of consistent federal funding. Accordingly, in 1992, the Central Utah Water Conservancy District (“District”) assumed planning and construction responsibilities with oversight from the U.S. Department of Interior. Progress has remained steady since then.

The Project’s most ambitious section, the Bonneville Unit, includes 10 reservoirs, a power plant, more than 200 miles of aqueducts tunnels and canals, and 300 miles of drains. Most of this transferred water is collected from tributaries of the Duchesne River, fed by the Uinta Mountains (the longest east-west running mountain range in the country and home to the state’s highest peak). This would-be Colorado River bound water instead winds up in either the Jordanelle Reservoir, not far from Park City, or Utah Lake, adjacent to the city of Provo. The Jordanelle Reservoir and Utah Lake feed water into Salt Lake and Utah counties, the state’s most populous.

The District expects the Bonneville Unit’s completion in the next seven years, but the thriving Front is already dependent on the fruits of its labor. At the base of the Jordanelle Reservoir’s 300-foot dam lays a concealed hydroelectric plant that was completed in 2008 and provides electricity to 9,000 homes. In addition, the Jordanelle Reservoir provides water to more than one million people in the nearby Salt Lake area. Utah Lake supplies both water and power to the greater Provo area in Utah County. Utah County’s population alone is expected to grow 800,000 by 2050.

However, the Project’s imported water is not only for the Front’s thirsty municipalities; it will serve a variety of purposes. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, the Project will also serve industrial use, irrigation, fish and wildlife conservation, recreation, and improved flood control capability and water quality control. For example, the Bonneville Unit will provide late season irrigation water for 26,000 acres of farmland along the Duchesne River, and the Bottle Hollow reservoir (also part of the Bonneville Unit) was constructed to provide fishing, recreation, and wildlife activities to compensate the Ute Indian tribe for economic loss resulting from decreased stream fishing. Other Project units will provide both municipal and irrigation water to small communities and rural areas in central and eastern Utah, outside the Front.

This ambitious water resource strategy will likely inspire similar projects across the Mountain West in coming decades. As the region continues on the path of unprecedented growth, getting water to burgeoning communities is becoming an absolute necessity. Many states will look to the successes and failures of Utah’s Project in addressing their own water needs and planning for the near future’s extraordinary demands.


The title image features the Wasatch Front near Salt Lake, Utah. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license to Milonica who does not endorse this blog.


U.S. Department of the Interior, Central Utah Project Completion Act Office, (last visited Oct. 24, 2014).

Amy Joi O’Donoghue, Thirsty? Tour Highlights Central Utah Water Projects, Deseret News, Sept. 4, 2014, available at

U.S. Department of the Interior- Bureau of Reclamation, Central Utah Water Project, (last visited Oct. 24, 2014).