The Provo River

A Restoration Project Of Giant Proportions

By Karyn Bates Anderson

“A river is more than an amenity; it is a treasure. It offers a necessity of life that must be rationed among those who have power over it.”


This statement by Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr. (Former Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court) is as true today as it was in 1922.

Of all the majestic landforms in the Heber Valley the Provo River, flowing silently along, yet changing everything in its path, is a significant game-changer. The river is a consistent and necessary source of drinking water for Utah. In 2005, Provo River provided drinking water for half the population of our state. In addition, the river offers incredible vistas, outstanding boating, fishing, and other recreational opportunities.1

In the mid-1900s, this magnificent river was made to bend to the will of those in power. The dramatic change in the river’s natural course caused severe damage to native flora and fauna. Recently the Provo River was reconstructed again in an attempt to reverse some of the damage done, and is currently protected to provide habitat and natural beauty.

The river’s story begins high in the Uintah Mountains, in an area full of natural lakes. It winds through the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest before making a monumental stop at the over 3,000-acre manmade Jordanelle Reservoir. After the completion of the Jordanelle Dam in 1993, the three small towns of Keetley, Jordanelle, and Hailstorm, were submerged by 320,300 acre feet of water from the Provo River — creating the Jordanelle Reservoir. The reservoir helps support the needs of nearby counties, and provides an abundance of recreation for the area, with three main access points from Hailstone, Rock Cliff, and Ross Creek.

The abundant Provo River continues its way throughout the Heber Valley until it reaches Deer Creek Reservoir. The Deer Creek Dam and Reservoir were completed in 1941. This reservoir covers 2,700 acres of land at full capacity, and also provides another massive water storage area for Utah’s population, again with the added benefit of boating, ice fishing, kite surfing, and other outstanding recreational opportunities.

After leaving the Heber Valley, the river steadily moves down the canyon, through the popular Provo River Parkway, and across the cities of Orem and Provo. Finally, it empties into Utah Lake, which is the state’s largest freshwater lake at about 148 square miles of water.


The Heber Valley portion of the river, between Jordanelle and Deer Creek, is known as the “Middle Provo River.” In the 1950s and ‘60s, this area became the subject of a major facelift through the Provo River Project. The project was designed as part of a more extensive program to divert, store, and deliver more water to the citizens of Utah. This plan for the Provo River was created through a federal program called the Central Utah Project (CUP) and was headed by the Utah Bureau of Reclamation. The concept for the CUP was conceived by Utah Valley farmers in 1902. The government began investigating the idea in 1945, it was authorized in 1956, with construction beginning in 1967. This elaborate system serves seven counties with 12 reservoirs throughout Utah and is the largest water resources development program in the state.2

After the CUP began modifying the river higher up, the Middle Provo River received extra water from these multiple, High-Uinta, trans-basin diversions. Because of the high flows created by this project, it was determined that the Middle Provo River should be straightened and channeled to reduce flooding. According to Paula Trater, the biological technician for the Provo River Restoration Project, “They basically took the Provo River and put it into a gigantic ditch. They diked both sides and channelized it because, at that point, they were having problems with flooding due to the other water projects.” However, in doing this, the complex fish and wildlife ecosystem of the middle river was destroyed.3

For years, the river flowed undeviatingly through the Heber Valley along the manmade channel into the Deer Creek Reservoir. When the Jordanelle Dam was created the possibility of flooding was significantly reduced, since it allowed for possible flood control in years with heavy rain and snow. The money to build the Jordanelle Dam also included funding for mitigation to compensate for any ecological damage. The situation offered the perfect opportunity to begin restoring the Middle Provo River. The Central Utah Project Completion Act of 1992 was created to organize completions of the CUP design, as well as to mitigate damages caused by it. The Act authorized the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission as an Executive branch agency of the federal government. Its task was to try to undo the damage from the larger projects.


The plan called for “un-straightening” the river channel again into more natural river meanders, as similar to the original river path as possible. Existing remnants of secondary channels would be reconnected to the main river, and small side channels and ponds would be recreated in a bid to restore wetland and wildlife habitat. A new flood plain would be established, as near to natural as possible, to allow the river to move and flow more naturally. To facilitate this, the restoration project needed to acquire “an 800 to 2,200-foot-wide continuous corridor the length of the Middle Provo River, protected for angler access and wildlife habitat.”4

The Commission began its pilot project in 1999, completing approximately one mile of river per year. Hydrologist Tyler Allred created the designs, attempting to mimic a naturally functioning river throughout the Heber Valley corridor, while still working within the restrictions of the Jordanelle Dam on the upstream end and Deer Creek Dam down below. Trater explained, “We’ve got basically ten miles of river that we turned into about twelve miles of naturally-meandering water . . . well, as natural as a bulldozer can make a river. The Mitigation Commission was undoing the channeling project that had been done in the ‘50s when they didn’t have as much consideration of greater environmental impacts to moving water. Rivers then were more just a way to get water from point A to point B, and they didn’t think about the general ecosystem and floodplains and how everything is tied together. We’re all connected — plants, water, humans, animals — it’s just such a complex system.”

Creating the new, old Provo River was a huge task. The banks of the river were initially private property on both sides, so there was a lot of opposition to having a public corridor come through. To balance the private property interests, it was agreed that there would be only seven access points for the public. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had acquired 135 acres of private property along the middle river when the Jordanelle Dam was built. About 490 additional acres were secured for the Provo River Restoration Project to fulfill its intention of habitat restoration and public access. Not only was the main river channel recreated and reconnected to remnants of secondary channels, but the area was also revegetated to restore destroyed habitats. The project construction lasted from 1999 until 2008. There is still ongoing surveying and monitoring of habitat wildlife populations such as native fish, macroinvertebrate, birds, and the Colombian Spotted Frog, which is on Utah’s Sensitive Species List.


Some think of open space as park-like, with paved trails for bikes and strollers. The 40-mile Jordan River Parkway, running from Utah County to Davis County, and the Provo River Parkway, a 15-mile stretch between Utah Lake and the Provo Canyon, are examples of this type of area and are intended for heavy travel. The Provo River Restoration Project is different. It was designed for a much more agricultural, rural area. “Of course, population demographics have changed,” says Trater, “and it’s gotten much more populated here in the Heber Valley, so I know a lot of pressure [could be] coming from recreationalists, but the original design was focused on wildlife and mitigation for lack of habitat that construction of the dam caused.”

According to Trater, people sometimes talk about creating that kind of [paved] trail along the river here, but that was not its intention. “People see this beautiful, open, riparian corridor and, of course, humans are drawn to open spaces and the great feeling of being out in nature by yourself. But it was specifically designated more for wildlife habitat. Some people have a hard time understanding that just by being there, you’re affecting it — even if you’re just passing through on your bike.”

Because of the habitat restoration, the Commission had to balance the needs of the Provo River’s natural wildlife population with access to the public. They came up with the concept of allowing access to minimal places along the river, with strict guidelines. The public corridor access includes recreation such as fishing, hiking, bird-watching, enjoying nature, and other non-consumptive uses.

Although there is no easy trail, Trater points out that, “we do have a lot of footpaths that the deer and fisherman create by use. Those are pretty much throughout the whole corridor. The way I think of it is instead of the big, wide, green-circle bunny trail at a ski resort where everybody goes; this is off in the trees, it’s the black-diamond areas. Mountain biking is not allowed because it’s considered a higher-impact use. You have to bushwhack, you might get wet, and you’re going to get attacked by deer flies and mosquitoes in the summer. It’s raw nature. We don’t have Kentucky bluegrass out there, you can come out there with your kids, and they can throw rocks and scamper over logs.”

Crossing the river in a few places and running alongside the river still adversely affect the natural habitat. The Commission contributed to the cost of a few of the several bridges placed along the river where there is heavier public use to help protect the native flora and fauna. The Midway Lane Legacy Bridge is one example.


Although the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission is a small, federally-funded agency, it also works with local county and city governments to create public spaces. “A lot of these big projects have been done with state partners and nonprofits,” says Trater. “We are kind of like the band leader, but we’ve got the whole orchestra going on, working towards river restoration to make up for the construction that has been done.”

As in the original Provo River Project, which channeled the river, and the Provo River Restoration Project, which attempted to undo the damage; the government, and the current population has considerable influence over the direction of nature in the Heber Valley. The influx of growth will most definitely change the view. How we respond to the demands pressing in will determine the future of the valley.

The Heber Valley is not the first and will not be the last open area to be threatened with historically uncharacteristic development. Salt Lake City recently announced the purchase of Allen Park. The seven-acre parcel, affectionately known as Hobbitville, was being considered for development property; however, it will now be preserved open space for public use. In this case, public money set aside from impact fees was used. Utah Public Lands, who joined with the city to try to preserve the park, said, “We have all witnessed how open space has served as a ray of hope amid the current crisis. The ability to preserve Allen Park became a reality because of Salt Lake City’s diligence.” Heber Valley must also be diligent in providing a measure of balance once again between population and nature, as our open space dwindles.

One way to do this is through open space bonds. Both Midway City and Wasatch County have open space bond money available for their use, and Heber City has recently formed its own Open Space Committee. There are also some other innovative ideas for saving open space, such as Midway’s creation of the rural preservation subdivision, which has a limit of one home for every five acres. This incentive-based program provides a shorter approval process with fewer requirements for infrastructure to developers who choose less density within specific parameters. Cost-saving measures are used “to incentivize folks not to develop their property to full density, but rather to protect it,” stated Celeste Johnson, Midway City’s Mayor.5

Working with state partners and nonprofits might be another option, as was done in the Provo River Restoration Project. Programs aimed at this type of preservation maintain open land not only for us but for all future generations. We can only do this growth once. There are no second chances, and we can’t go back. It is a huge responsibility on the current population of the Heber Valley to find a way to maintain some of the open space that we currently enjoy, as the pressures of growth mount. Open space is one of our most valuable assets.

According to the Envision Heber website, 53.6% of survey respondents value preserving open space as a number one priority in the Heber Valley. Heber City Mayor Kelleen Potter explained the reasoning behind the numbers. “I believe that one of the reasons people come here and love it here is because of the open space. It feels rural, it feels open, and it’s beautiful. I think that it’s really important to people to make sure that we preserve some of that space, and that we have, especially, outdoor spaces where we can recreate, and that we can use and enjoy. I think it’s a quality of life issue, it’s an economic issue, and it’s also a health issue. There are just so many reasons why it’s valuable to our residents and to our community that we maintain significant amounts of open space.”

During the current pandemic and quarantine, the Provo River and Heber Valley open spaces are even more valuable to us as we are instructed to remain close to home. We are incredibly fortunate to have so many natural resources available nearby. The movement of life is reminiscent of a river — ever-changing and continually moving forward. Once in a while, though, the current slows down. We as a society are being forced to slow down, similar to how the Provo River Restoration Project forced a return to a more meandering, slower path for the river as it runs through the Heber Valley. This change restored not only the original beauty of the river but also the wetland habitat surrounding it. Public and governmental preservation of open spaces works similarly to slow down growth and maintain the unique charm. Much like the straightened river, growth, if left on its own, will move forward in the quickest and most convenient path. The Provo River Restoration Project can be used as a metaphor for slowing down and controlling the direction of growth in the Heber Valley, ensuring that a beneficial balance is achieved between man and nature.

As Paula Trater so fittingly stated, “Everything that happens on a river affects everything else. What happens upstream affects downstream users. Rivers connect the whole community.” Likewise, our actions now will affect our community for generations after us. It is a huge responsibility but I believe we are up to the task.






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