In the beginning was water...

Imagine a time before mountains .... a time when Cache Valley was covered with water. For many millions of years water was the most obvious feature of this part of Utah. If you had been in Cache Valley 500 million years ago you would have been standing in one of the shallow tropical seas that covered this area for many millions of years. Warm, tropical seas teaming with tiny shelled creatures and algae.

The mountains which are so prominent today are a relatively recent addition to the area, uplifted a mere 15 million years ago. However it is they who bear witness to the role water has played in Cache Valley's formation. Fossil remnants of the ancient tropical seas that were here first are preserved in their rocks. And shorelines of the freshwater lakes that came after are carved high up on their sides. Cache Valley's rivers, creeks, springs and lakes have ancient origins.

Lake Bonneville, the largest and best known of the freshwater lakes, covered an area some 348 miles long and 145 miles wide and at its highest level reached from Cedar City on the south to Red Rock Pass on the north. If you had been standing in Cache Valley 15,000 years ago you would have been under 650 feet of water, in Lake Bonneville.

Lake Bonneville was filled with cutthroat trout and Utah chub, snails, clams and algae. The surrounding mountains were also full of life. Wooly mammoths and musk oxen, bears, big horn sheep, horses, even an ice-age camel. Caves on the lake's ancient shorelines contain evidence of prehistoric peoples who sheltered there in winter and harvested the lake's fish. We don't know much more than that. Lake Bonneville belonged to the Pleistocene Epoch, the pre-historic period when modern mammals and North American human cultures developed.

The Great Salt Lake is a remnant of this earlier body of water. Like the shoreline of the modern lake, the Bonneville shoreline rose and fell as local temperatures cooled or heated. Despite these fluctuations, however, the lake continued to grow for thousands of years. Eventually it was so high that it breached the natural barrier at Red Rock Pass (north of Cache Valley, near Swan Lake, Idaho). Water poured over the breach into the Snake and Columbia River subsystems and out to the Pacific Ocean. This sudden lowering of the lake's level (it dropped some 350 feet in a couple of weeks) coincided with the beginning of a period of warmer, drier weather. The lake continued to shrink. By about 11,000 years ago it had dried completely above the valley floor, leaving a deep and fertile accumulation of sediment which had been eroded from the nearby mountains and carried to the valley floor by rivers and streams. The many rivers and streams which had flowed across the valley reestablished themselves on the valley floor. The Bear River, for example, flowed out across the Cutler Narrows to the Great Salt Lake.

The historical record tells of the Shoshone tribes who were here when the Europeans arrived. The Bannock, Blackfoot and Snake Shoshone lived a nomadic existence which brought them to Cache Valley for the excellent fishing, hunting and trapping. The one Shoshone village in the valley was located on the Logan River, which the native people called Kwagunogwai ("river of the cranes"). The many cranes feeding and nesting along the valley's rivers and marshes no doubt formed part of their diet, together with fish and buffalo, roots and berries. The Europeans called these people "fish eaters" because they harvested much of their food from the valley's rivers.

The first Europeans to reach Cache Valley were mountain men -- trappers and traders working for the fur companies. Cache Valley was a huge draw for these adventurous spirits who were also the first Europeans to explore and map the west. The mountain men used hollow trees and nearby mountain caves to hide (cache) their furs until their next rendezvous. They also gave the valley its current name in remembrance of one of their own -- a trapper who was buried alive while excavating a cave.

One early mountain man associated with the area was Jim Bridger, credited with "discovering" the Great Salt Lake by following the Bear River in a "bull" boat (historians disagree on whether this boat was made of bull rushes or raw hide). Bridger originally thought he had found an arm of the Pacific Ocean, though he later realized his mistake.

The mountain men were attracted to the abundant population of beaver that inhabited the valley's many waterways. This unlucky creature's fur was in such great demand by ladies and gentlemen of fashion that by 1840 the trappers had stripped the valley of almost its entire beaver population. In a stroke of good fortune for the beaver, however, the fashion changed and the bottom dropped out of the beaver market around this same time. Now, some 160 years later, the valley's beaver population is finally beginning to recover.

European settlers arrived shortly after the trappers. Pressure had been building from the drier/hotter Mormon settlements south of Salt Lake City. Suffering from many problems, not the least of which were drought, grasshopper devastation and salty soil, a party from Tooele asked Brigham Young for permission to explore Cache Valley. In 1856 Peter Maughan was authorized to lead a group of settlers into the valley. Maughan was drawn to the fertile valley, despite the harder winters and the likelihood of friction with the local Shoshone. By the end of 1859 150 pioneer families had established six small settlements in the area -- Wellsville, Providence, Mendon, Logan, Smithfield and Richmond.

The history of the valley's water since pioneer times is the history of water put to use for human settlement. Canals were built early-on for irrigation and flood control. Sawmills and gristmills were producing lumber and grain by the early 1860s. Dams for water storage and power came later in the century.

The valley's abundant water and level floor made it ideal for agriculture, though a complex network of canals and ditches was required to deliver it to farmers' fields. The first canal was built in 1859 to irrigate 1400 acres of fields in Wellsville with water from the Little Bear River. During 21 days the following spring, "28 men and boys, with 8 shovels, a few old spades, a few homemade plows, and 4 wooden 'go devils'"* built a canal that carried water nine miles from the Little Bear to Hyrum. In 1871 a small earth and rock dam was built to seal off one end of a natural depression in the ground to collect run off from Wellsville Mountain through Clarkston Creek. Frequent spring washouts required constant repair of this first-ever storage reservoir in Utah/Idaho.

In 1909, a predecessor company to Utah Power acquired certain Bear River water rights from U & I Sugar. In 1927 the company built and began operating Cutler Dam in Box Elder County somewhat downstream from an earlier dam constructed by U & I. Cutler Dam impounds the waters of the Bear, Logan and Little Bear rivers as well as Spring Creek and many other small drainages. Backup from the dam produced the reservoir, approximately 10,000 acres of open water and associated wetlands and uplands.

PacificCorp Energy, the power generation company for Rocky Mountain Power operates the Cutler Dam Hydroelectric Project under authorization granted by the Federal Power Act, and under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The primary obligation of the Cutler Dam Project is to provide water for agricultural use. Power generation is a secondary obligation, supplemental benefit. PacifiCorp Energy has four other hydroelectric power generation facilities on the Bear River. These produce power for all of Cache Valley, with the exception of enough electricity for about 16,000 typical homes. Logan City operates its own power company.

*Joel Ricks, The Beginnings of Settlement in Cache Valley, 1953
(Utah Power updated to Rocky Mountain Power and PacifiCorp)

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