The water supply for early settlers of the southern Utah Valley was erratic. The Spanish Fork River, which to that point in the mid-1800s, had been unregulated, was also unreliable. Then, unlike now, viability of the smattering of farms depended on snowmelt raising water levels in the river enough to feed irrigation ditches. If the snow-pack was low, so was the river level and, consequently, so was crop production.
Luckily for Utah County farmers, Utah State Senator Henry Gardner and a friend were in the Strawberry Valley for a camping trip around the turn of the century when they came up with an idea. Not only would a reservoir be built to capture and store snow-melt for lean times, but that water would be moved through the mountains of the Wasatch Divide to the thirsty farmlands of Utah Valley.
It was an ambitious plan, with a problem. Up to that point, the facilities serving farms were small. Locally built diversion dams and canals appeared, and failed, often; sometimes making the delivery systems as unreliable as the water itself. Officials realized that only one entity was big enough to take on a project of that size - the Federal Government. And since Utah had recently become a state, and its economy was now more dependent on markets outside of the state, other Utah senators, like Reed Smoot, helped push the Strawberry Valley Project forward.
The central feature of the project was the dam. After investigations by the new U.S. Reclamation Service (now known as the Bureau of Reclamation) in the early 1900s, the project was determined to be feasible. The issue then became how to pay for it. It was decided that the Federal government would provide the financing and technical expertise to build the dam and in turn, the users of the water would be obligated to repay the construction costs.
The building of a turbine on the Spanish Fork River allowed the project to begin in earnest. And excavation for the Strawberry Dam began in late June 1911. It’s hard to realize just what was accomplished from our vantage point in the 21st century. Today, many thousand cubic yards of material per day can be hauled, dumped, graded and compacted by huge diesel equipment. Modern safety gear protects workers from noise, dangerous gas, subterranean springs and other hazards. But in 1911, workers endured hard labor, harsh weather and malfunctions. Some died.
Yet, that didn’t stop Reclamation from building a crushing and mixing plant to provide gravel for the dam’s concrete. Or a cableway supported by derricks on both sides of the river channel to move it. It didn’t stop the construction of a concrete outlet to divert the river around the construction site, a spillway, a concrete bridge over the spillway or the Indian Creek Dike between Indian Creek and the Strawberry River. And all of this before the dam was even built.
In September 1913, the dam was completed and was the largest structure of its kind in Utah. It was seventy-three feet high and contained more than 118,000 cubic yards of material. The spillway was concrete-lined and had a capacity of 425 cubic feet per second, and the reservoir could hold 283,000 acre feet, or 283 football fields covered by water one foot deep.
In the mid-1920s, the Strawberry Water Users Association was created to run the project, and in 1926, it signed a contract with Reclamation allowing it to take over operations of the project and its facilities. With that agreement, the association agreed to be obligated to repay a portion of the project over fifty years.
The association paid off the construction costs of the Strawberry Valley Project to the Bureau of Reclamation in 1974 with a final check of $1,050.60. Looking back, the project has been deemed “very successful” because it not only provided water but power to surrounding communities, and gets credit for being one of the most ambitious projects the early U.S. Reclamation Service ever undertook.
Although the Strawberry Dam was replaced with the enlarged Soldier Creek Dam in the early seventies, the legacy of those early farmers, politicians and engineers continues to live itself out through the water that continues to flow to the southern Utah Valley.
The Strawberry Water Users Association will celebrate its centennial on June 24th at 10:00 a.m. The event will be located across from the U.S. Forest Service visitor’s center on Highway 40, 22 miles east of Heber City. The public is invited. For more information, call Shawn Thomas at 801.465.9273, or Don Merrill at 801.379.1074.