Could Bear Lake be loved to death? A state lawmaker wants to to find out.
With roughly a million visitors in 2021, Bear Lake’s cool, blue waters are a summertime vacation destination in northeast Utah and southeast Idaho, and it is one of the main drivers of the economy in Rich County and Idaho’s Bear Lake County.
But a Utah state lawmaker wants to be sure the lake isn’t being loved to death, and ensure the influx of visitors and development to the state’s deepest body of water doesn’t force the lake down the path of the drying Great Salt Lake.
Sen. Chris Wilson, R-Logan, requested an appropriation of $300,000 in one-time money to study the lake and identify its management needs. Wilson said more people have discovered the area in recent years, and much of the information used to make management decisions on the lake is dated.
“As I look around at information and data, we just don’t have a lot on Bear Lake,” Wilson said, “and (I’m) just concerned about Bear Lake.”
Wilson said the Utah Department of Natural Resources has a management plan for the lake, but he added, “there’s no analysis done on how and where the state needs to appropriate efforts and tools to effectively manage Bear Lake, to avoid a lot of the adverse conditions that we’ve seen with the Great Salt Lake.”
“I think it’s just important that we try to get ahead of that,” Wilson said.
An economic driver and a building boom
The area around the lake is experiencing a huge boom in building in recent decades, as the housing stock in Rich and Bear Lake counties grew by 80% and 40% respectively between 1990 and 2010, according to a study commissioned by the Bear River Association of Governments.
The same study found that the two counties home to Bear Lake — Rich County and Idaho’s Bear Lake County — saw the number of seasonal homes increase 16% from 2014 to 2019.
For Rich County, among the least populated counties in Utah, the study found 73% of all residences were seasonal or vacation homes, while that number for Bear Lake County was 34%. Garden City, Utah, alone has over 2,000 seasonal homes, and the residential market values more than doubled between 2016 and 2021.
A policy brief from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah also shows Rich County has one of the largest shares of short-term rental units in the state by county in 2021. The policy brief indicated 16.5% of total housing units in Rich County were dedicated to short-term rentals, as the county ranked third behind only Summit and Grand counties.
Brian Steed — executive director for Utah State University’s Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air — told The Tribune the amount of developments near the lake is just one of the area’s aspects that needs to be studied and evaluated.
“There are very large developments that are being plotted right on the shores of the lake itself that causes lots of alarm,” Steed said. If granted the money, the study would be done by the USU institute Steed leads.
Unlike the Great Salt Lake or Utah Lake, Bear Lake hasn’t had wide scale problems, but Steed said that might not always be the case.
“It hasn’t had the water quality problems that Utah Lake has had, and it hasn’t had the water deficit problems that the Great Salt Lake has had, but all of those things are within the realm of the possible,” Steed said.
Wilson says he thinks Bear Lake is currently in a good position, but the proposed assessment would give a greater idea of what the next 10 or 20 years could look like. He said the growing number of people living near the lake is something that needs to be analyzed.
He hopes the study, if funded, would outline how the lake should be managed for the next decade or two, “and maybe further so we can avoid, you know, some of the situations we’re having with the Great Salt Lake.”