Heber Valley bypass could destroy iconic north fields and pollute Provo River, critics say
Eric S. Peterson, Utah Investigative Journalism Project
The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Salt Lake City Weekly, The Daily Herald and The Park Record.
Brian Wimmer, president of Trouts Unlimited in Utah County has been casting his flies into the Middle Provo River for years. He’s learned that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been tying and casting flies, you can’t control the river or when and where the fish will bite–and that really is the whole point.
“When you give yourself up to the possibility that you’re not going to be able to control it then it’s about letting go and letting it happen,” Wimmer said. At this level of enlightenment, you appreciate most the serenity of standing still in a ceaseless and wild river. Maybe hooking dinner, maybe not.
Understanding that the river is bigger than you are is the ultimate reward.
It’s a lesson Wimmer wishes the Utah Department of Transportation would heed. The past two years UDOT has been planning a bypass to relieve traffic congestion through Heber City. The agency has already conducted lengthy studies and narrowed down five possible routes through the valley. On paper, two of these routes are seen as innocuous straight black lines connecting U.S. 40 at the northern entrance to the valley around Heber City and linking south to S.R. 32.
Eric S. Peterson, Utah Investigative Journalism Project
For critics these straightforward lines, if built, would cut in half the valley’s iconic north fields, threaten the health of the pristine Provo River and possibly trigger the kind of developments across the valley floor that would make the postcard like vistas resemble any other paved over community in Utah that decided to trade its pastures and streams for Walmarts and condos.
Wimmer doesn’t doubt UDOT has good intentions. He’s just witnessed too many instances over the years when construction crews took shortcuts that meant harmful pollution to the river.
“It’s too easy to mess up because we just do not play God very well,” Wimmer said.
He insists he’s not just an ornery angler, noting the water isn’t just for the trout but serves the culinary needs of most of Utah County and parts of Salt Lake County with the Provo River watershed serving as source water for 65% of the state’s population.
Currently UDOT is working on its first draft Environmental Impact Statement. It’s the official report on how these different routes could impact the local environment that will help guide local leaders and is also required by federal law.
UDOT officials have already taken early public comment and used the feedback to promise to address issues of major concern. One anxiety for residents is the possible pollution and impacts that could result from developments that might blossom along the new bypass.
In its formal response, UDOT has committed to studying the “foreseeable” impacts of development. In an interview, Heber Valley Bypass project manager Craig Hancock acknowledged that “foreseeable” only means looking at what the current zoning is and that UDOT has not closely examined plans of property owners in the valley.
“We refer back to the cities and their zoning laws,” Hancock said.
In reviewing county land records since 2020, however, The Utah Investigative Journalism Project has identified over 100 acres of parcels bought by a handful of developers across the valley that could turn a profit with help from the bypass, and potentially impact the river at the same time.
Twists and Turns
So how is it that apartments and parking lots can blossom and flourish along the edges of a highway like reeds on a riverbank?
For Mike Mills, the building of a road often gives cities the opportunity to also install utility and sewer lines at a fraction of the cost, since another agency like UDOT would be footing the excavation bill.
“That kind of infrastructure supports more development,” said Mills, deputy executive director of the Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission.
Wendy Fisher is executive director of Utah Open Lands, an organization that works to preserve open space through conservation easements that pay landowners to voluntarily protect their lands from future development. She too warns that a highway can easily strangle open space preservation.
“How many farm owners want to have their farms split in half by a fairly significant road, and then want to conserve it?” Fisher asked. Having that land dissected by a highway might convince the landowner that it’s not worth preserving anymore and might as well be sold and developed in the future.
For Mills, the idea of a road jeopardizing the river is especially troubling given the twists and turns in the history of the river itself.
In the 1950s and 1960 the Central Utah Project brought water from the Colorado River down into the heart of Utah. Part of that project meant dams and dikes were placed on the Provo River and like Paul Bunyan taming a wild river, they straightened out the river to force a faster and more direct flow to the state’s population centers.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t well understood at the time that life flourishes in these river bends, so the fish died and the animals that fed on them left. Wetlands were destroyed and forest habitat lost.
Mills was part of the Provo River Restoration Project, aimed at undoing this folly. It was a $45 million project that between 1999 and 2008 had to recreate the bends of the river and rebuild the habitat through painstaking effort. Healthy vegetation was planted, constant monitoring of the ecosystem was undertaken and the commission had to acquire land for an 800- to 2,200-foot-wide corridor along the length of the river between Jordanelle Dam and Deer Creek Reservoir.
Now the river is once again flush with trout and anglers and the banks teem with birds and birdwatchers.
“I’m obviously biased but it feels like a jewel for the Heber Valley,” Mills said. He’s frankly worried that after such a victory the state would now plan a highway to run parallel to the river.
“It’s like somebody gets cut, the doctor stitches them up and then someone else comes along and just cuts the stitches,” Mills said.
‘Boots on the Water’
While UDOT has been meeting with stakeholder groups for the past few years, those have primarily been interested parties in Heber Valley. End users, especially those in Utah County, said they had not been involved in these early discussions. Representatives of public works departments for both Provo and Orem said they had not been included.
Keith Denos, director of the Utah County-based Provo River Water Users Association was only made aware of the project when asked by a reporter. He said he needed to study it and couldn’t comment for his organization but personally understood the challenge UDOT was undertaking on behalf of Heber City.
“I remember 20 years ago Heber was a sleepy little town, but now it feels like a massive traffic jam every time up there now,” Denos said. He adds, though, that the river and the north fields are irreplaceable. “That’s a place every valley wishes they could preserve.”
But how long these wide open spaces can withstand development is a big question. A 2017 report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah projected that Wasatch County would be the second fastest growing county in the state, seeing a population increase of 187% between 2015 and 2045.
The Heber Valley Bypass process kicked off in 2020 with UDOT looking to help residents move across the valley and support the city’s plan for revitalizing its historic town center.
Project manager Hancock says UDOT started with 23 alternative routes recently narrowed down to five. Three of the routes avoid cutting through the largest swathes of the scenic north fields by veering off highway 40 near the entrance of town.
Each of these alternatives are measured not only against the need and purpose–easing congestion and supporting Heber’s downtown–but also against potential negative impacts to the local environment.
Hancock noted that no plans would directly impact the river.
“What we’re not doing is creating a dam with the road, there’s not something planned that’s going to block any of the water,” Hancock said. Where UDOT will be focusing its attention will be on the various feeder streams and creeks into the Provo River that will be affected. He says UDOT will plan on a variety of retention ponds and other filtration systems to protect the river as well as surrounding groundwater and wetlands.
For Wimmer of Trouts Unlimited the problem is when well thought out plans are built by careless construction crews. He points to the dam rehabilitation in 2016 that released a river of black sludge down American Fork Canyon killing thousands of fish. Or more recently the concrete slurry that washed through Mill Creek in 2021 from an I-215 construction project overseen by UDOT.
Wimmer said it’s often anglers, as the “boots on the water” that spot these kinds of spills, that might otherwise go undetected.
“This is the mentality of the construction world,” Wimmer said. “They are always going to come in over budget so they start cutting corners, next thing you know they start flushing stuff down the river and if no one sees it, ‘no harm, no foul.'”
For Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council, where the rubber hits the road for pollution, is literally the rubber hitting the road. A major concern is the tire debris that collects on roadways and gets washed off during storms into surrounding areas.
There’s so much at risk it makes him question what really is to be gained.
“At some point we need to ask ourselves why we live here?” Frankel said. “I would argue it’s not because we might be able to make a trip three minutes shorter. It’s because of the landscape, it’s because of the quality of life.”
While UDOT has planned to estimate the impacts of development from the road, they have limited that only to current zoning and plans.
Naomi Kisen, UDOT’s environmental program manager said that means consulting with local planning authorities.
“If [developers] submitted plans to the local government authority that approves those plans, then we take that into consideration,” Kisen said.
This, however, doesn’t account for purchases made by shrewd land speculators, especially those who have already bought land but won’t seek new zoning or permitting until the conditions are right–if their property is close to a new highway, for example.
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in a search of county records identified over 148 acres of land purchased across the north fields areas since 2020 when the UDOT process officially began. These parcels would all be in close proximity to the north field routes and many would be adjacent to the Provo River.
Take for example 10 acres purchased near the Provo River and along 2400 North where one of the UDOT northern field routes will intersect. The parcel was acquired by a company called Big Water Ranch, LLC. The owners of that company aren’t cowhands but leaders of Peak Capital Partners, a Provo-based company that develops apartments and multifamily properties. The company’s website boasts a portfolio of units spread across 25 states and also notes that its properties all represent “strong long term growth opportunities,” cultivated through “relentless due diligence.”
“We maintain a broad sourcing network and productive relationships with brokers, property owners, developers, and municipal leaders in each target market,” the website states.
Another company, Timpview Investment Holdings has acquired over 50 acres near the proposed UDOT routes since 2019 when the Bypass was only being informally discussed. That company has already sought (unsuccessfully so far) to convince Heber City to annex its land just north of Wasatch County Park for a future development that would include open spaces as well as multi-family affordable residential developments. Proposed developments would run close to Spring Creek which feeds into the Provo River.
Another 16 acres was scooped up in February at the spot where the north field routes would turn off from U.S. 40 by an entity called KLJB LLC, the members of which are firm principals in a company called Mountain States Property Management, a real estate development company out of Logan.
All such acquisitions are perfectly legal and may very well be quite strategically located if the routes are approved and local government in the future warms to the idea of development around the bypass.
For UDOT, however, they won’t factor in the environmental or other development impact studies until plans are filed.
“The bypass road doesn’t change the zoning in the valley,” Kisen said.
Or does it?
That’s the question on the minds of open space advocates. Which comes first, the road or the developments? If there is a road that cuts across open space, does it incentivize a move toward developing around the road?
Michael Henke, planning director for Midway City worries that’s exactly what will happen.
“The road could make it easier to develop those areas,” he said. Midway actually bonded $5 million to help fund conservation easements, including north field areas in 2018. That same year Wasatch County also approved a $10 million bond. Now the open space advocates have to wait to see if those plans could be thwarted by a UDOT condemnation.
The bonds have given landowners a chance to keep generational farms intact or have them converted into public trails or open spaces. Sometimes it just means a promise to leave it green, even if there isn’t public access.
“There’s a lot of value even in just seeing the land open,” Henke said.
For Fisher with Utah Open Lands, conservation easements are valuable tools to create “forever deeds.” But those opportunities could also be ruined forever by the bypass.
“Once there’s a road, once you’ve destroyed that idyllic setting, you can’t get it back,” she said.
More information about the proposed routes can be found at https://hebervalleyeis.udot.utah.gov/. The draft EIS is set to be released this winter or in the spring of 2023 and the public will have an opportunity to provide comment.
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