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Liquid of Life
U of U Professor Craig Denton documents the critical role of water in the West.

by Linda Marion

The voice of all rivers reverberates in the Bear, and it wisely suggests that we listen.
—Craig Denton, Bear River: Last Chance to Change Course

At Christmas Meadows in Utah’s western Uinta Mountains, the Stillwater Fork of the Bear gently meanders through subalpine habitat, one of five life zones the river nurtures on its way to the Great Salt Lake. All photos copyright Craig Denton 2007

Water. That pure, clear, life-giving liquid upon which all creatures great and small depend for survival.

In theory, Planet Earth has plenty of it. More than 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered by water. Now, with the threat of global warming and melting ice caps, rising oceans could potentially flood coastal areas around the world. If anything, the planet seems to have an overabundance of water, not a dearth.

The reality, of course, is that 98 percent of the planet’s water is found in our salty oceans; another1.6 percent of it is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps; 0.36 percent is underground in aquifers and wells; and a mere 0.036 percent of the earth’s total water supply is found in lakes and rivers, which feed the cities and towns and supply fresh water—for drinking, bathing, cooking, irrigating crops and lawns, and other multiple household and agricultural uses—to the vast majority of the more than 6.5 billion people around the globe. And that number is predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Given those sobering statistics, the availability of fresh water to citizens of the world takes on a whole new urgency.

Western Waters

Old fights New
Borders shift
Numbers grow
The slope steepening
By the power of many.
You crowd my banks
Draining your refuse,
Cloud my currents
Proclaiming they cleanse themselves.
Unused water,
You say
We need another dam.
Drought looms
For my nest
And your soul

Inhabitants of the Western United States are used to living with the constant threat of drought, especially in Utah, the second-driest state in the nation, which “boasts” about 14 inches of annual precipitation (compared to more than 59 inches in Louisiana, for example). Yet the state has the highest water consumption rate of all 50. Thus, “Slow the flow,” the motto of the Governor’s Water Conservation Team initiative, has become the state’s mantra.

But are people listening? The waste, storage, and distribution of water in Utah and the West continue to be contentious issues among the various stakeholders. As the population and demands for water continue to grow, the Really Big Disputes lurk ominously on the horizon.

With that in mind, Craig Denton MA’76, a U of U professor of communication and director of the Documentary Studies Program, began researching the Bear River in northern Utah, the Great Salt Lake’s principal source and one of the last rivers still open for development in the region.

The result of his extensive research into the river’s natural and human history is his handsome photographic documentary Bear River: Last Chance to Change Course (Utah State University Press, August 2007). A photographer, writer, teacher, conservationist, and avid fisherman, Denton became fascinated by the topic while researching his first such collection of profiles and photographs, People of the West Desert: Finding Common Ground (Utah State University Press, 1999), and discovering the crucial importance of water in the lives of people who reside in the arid relict of old Lake Bonneville.

“The issue of water is even more important now,” says Denton, “because of the hydrological and fairness issues associated with trans-basin water transfers”—a reference to the Nevada Water Authority’s plan to tap aquifers in eastern Nevada in order to send water to Las Vegas. And due to groundwater interconnectedness, that could affect other areas in Utah, such as the Snake Valley area on the Utah-Nevada border. “After my West Desert work, when I began hearing of plans to dam the Bear River and transfer the water south,” says Denton, “I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ ”

The Voice of the Bear

Denton’s story of the Bear River interweaves written and photographic text. Using what he calls poetic “interludes” to introduce each chapter, he lays out the voice of the river via personification and metaphor.

The river is further brought to life by vignettes profiling individuals who have interacted with the Bear—by observing, recreating, or working on it—so that the river gains another voice through the stories of those who have been entwined with its history.

The book begins by exploring the Bear River from its origins in the High Uinta Mountains, to its meanderings north into Wyoming, and to its return into Utah via Idaho and the Bear River Valley, eventually emptying into the Great Salt Lake and nurturing one of the most important migratory bird refuges in the country.

Notes Denton: “All Western rivers have already been appropriated for some time. The Colorado is the one that we’re wrestling the most with now, because there are so many demands on it from different states and large populations, and the same issues are playing out with the Bear.”

He points out that Western rivers were adjudicated and water rights allocated when managers often weren’t aware of the total amount of precipitation contained in a specific watershed; even so, historical water rights got “carved into stone.” The Colorado, for example, was divvied up at a time of relatively high precipitation in its watershed; but today, after many years of increasing demand and nearly a decade of drought in the region, both Lake Powell and Lake Mead are barely half full. “Ultimately,” says Denton, “there’s a finite supply [of water], and we can’t have a finite supply and an economic and population growth paradigm that’s based on the Old West; it simply won’t work.”

Paradigm Reconfiguration

Below Cutler Narrows looking SW
The Bear River has an ongoing relationship with Lake Bonneville, despite the Pleistocene lake’s disappearance approximately 10,000 years ago. As it cuts through sediments it once deposited in the lake, the river turns brown.

What Denton finds particularly distressing is the lack of communication between the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and the Utah Division of Water Resources. One entity markets the state, wooing companies to bring their jobs to Utah, while the other worries about finding the water to support more businesses and people. “What we ought to be doing is reconfiguring our economic development paradigm so that we focus on internal growth,” says Denton. “We need to support those businesses that are already here, to make them grow and be more profitable, rather than to entice other people to move in.”

The continuing increase in the state’s population, plus the prospect of global warming, is, in a word, “frightening,” says Denton. “It’s like a perfect storm of gathering elements that could lead to crisis unless we start to deal with the core issues and be honest with ourselves [about the future].”

As an example, he points to the local practice of overbuilding. “How many times have we heard recently that all the vacant homes built on speculation will be filled by in-migration? The presumption is that that’s a good thing when, in fact, it may be bad,” says Denton, who blames decision makers and average citizens alike for being “locked into” an old way of thinking. “We need to figure out what a sustainable economic growth paradigm is, but we also have to be willing to lower our expectations and live within that sustainability paradigm, which,” he admits, “will be very difficult, because it will likely mean changes in lifestyles and development patterns.”

Signs of Positive Change

In spite of the challenges ahead, Denton the optimist points out signs of positive change regarding the management and use of water. “Water developers are starting to think about conservation, and citizens are becoming much more aware of the interconnectedness of things,” he says, “but if history is any harbinger, usually there’s got to be a crisis. If we can be more proactive and forward-looking, and less self-delusional, then I think we might be able to pull ourselves out of it.

“In years past, historically entrenched water developers and users have made the decisions and spread the costs,” he continues, “but since the federal government has proclaimed the age of dam building over, the states are now responsible for their own projects, which includes absorbing the costs.” He refers to the current controversy over the proposed construction of a pipeline from a shrinking Lake Powell to Washington County in southwestern Utah, one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation. “The water developers are starting to realize the enormous costs involved, which are blossoming into the high million- and even billion-dollar range.”

As a result, he says, “Water developers are jumping on the conservation bandwagon more than they have at any other time, because they realize that it’s the best way to fulfill their responsibilities most economically and efficiently.”

Concerns about water usage are also pulling together eclectic groups of proponents working on other public issues such as the creation of conservation easements, higher-density community development, and transportation corridors, which, in turn, will encourage people to make better use of mass transit and help curb air pollution. “Once we recognize that these problems are interconnected,” says Denton, “then we can start to work on multiple problems to find solutions that work across the board.”

“People have to be willing to change their thinking about water and the way we use it. Our future depends on it.”

Hansen Park

Plans for developing Bear River water eventually require one or more dams. Originally, Honeyville, Utah, was the site of choice, but public opposition took this location off the table.

An exhibition of Craig Denton’s photographs and commentary, Bear River: Last Chance to Change Course—first exhibited at the Utah Museum of Natural History last fall—is touring Utah as part of the Water Wise Utah project. It is on display at the St. George Art Museum until March 8, and then goes to the Salt Lake County Library in Draper (March 14-May 17), the Daybreak Community Center in South Jordan (May 23-July 11), and the Ogden Nature Center (July 18-Sept. 12).

That’s exactly what happened with Bear River proposals in the first part of this century, when disparate groups of stakeholders-farmers, ranchers, conservationists, and outdoor recreationists-banded together to oppose the construction of two more dams on the Bear River. Diversion of water via a dam and reservoir had been deemed the best way to help quench the thirst of the growing populations in Weber and Salt Lake counties. The opponents argued, for a long list of reasons—including the threat to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge—that the dams were a bad idea and wouldn’t work. Their lobbying was ultimately successful, and the proposals were taken off the table.

“The coalitions of disparate groups that share common ground can be very powerful,” observes Denton.

As for the steps individuals can take, there are many options. The most obvious is simply citizen awareness of the importance of conserving water-from correcting the “all-too-common practice” of overwatering lawns, to replacing lawns with xeriscaping, to repairing leaky faucets, to getting involved in the Water Wise Utah projectand other water-awareness programs promoted by local municipalities. All present ways in which individuals can conserve water.

Denton sums up, simply: “People have to be willing to change their thinking about water and the way we use it. Our future depends on it.”

Read more about Denton’s views on the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.

Return to Spring 2008 table of contents | Back to top

web Craig Denton has taught at the University of Utah for 30 years, including courses on photography, graphic design, and editing. He currently directs the Documentary Studies Program, an initiative that incorporates multiple modes of documentary production: oral narrative; radio, photographic and film documentary; and Web site delivery. In addition to his Bear River and People of the West Desert photo documentaries, he has published The University Of Utah: 150 Years Of Excellence (2000).

Denton is presently collaborating with U of U Professor of Architecture Peter Goss on Hidden Water, a photographic documentary exploring the sources and multiple uses of surface water on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley. He is also co-developing a link on the Western Waters Digital Library Web site, which will become a resource on the history of water development, current uses, and challenges facing Salt Lake Valley watersheds. “The purpose,” says Denton, “is to enable us to think in a different way about water.”