In the late 1800s and early 1900s, farmers in southern Utah County relied completely on the Spanish Fork River to water their crops — but the natural flow often dried up by the end of the season.
It wasn’t until an ambitious plan was made to drill a 4-mile tunnel through the mountains to funnel water from the Strawberry River that local farmers were able to have a more reliable source of irrigation that’s still in use today.
A historic tour Tuesday celebrated the Strawberry Valley Project, which has provided irrigation and secondary water to southern Utah County for about 100 years. Dozens of people representing organizations like the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, the Utah Farm Bureau and local city officials gathered to learn about the history of the project and visit historic sites from the project that are no longer in use today.
The Strawberry Water Project was one of the first projects completed after the Bureau of Reclamation was created in 1902, said Gary Aitken, the general manager of the Strawberry Water Users Association. The reservoir and canal system currently irrigates approximately 42,500 total acres including Spanish Fork, Salem, Payson, Mapleton and Springville.
The tour visited several historic sites of the project no longer in use, including an area that once included the Current Creek cabin and outbuildings where men would live for three months at a time to maintain the Current Creek canal, which was built to funnel more water into Strawberry Reservoir in the 1930s.
Third-generation Water Commissioner John Mendenhall had many fond memories at the site of the old cabin, which he shared with those on the tour, including how his father used to take care of workers’ beer debts at a store down the canyon when he would come up to the canyon to check on things, and how workers used to use coal dust to make the snow melt more rapidly into the canal.
It’s stories like that that make the project so special, Mendenhall said.
“There’s a lot of people who could tell you how long the canal is,” Mendenhall said. “Those things are all history you can read. The history of this project is people. Now you guys are part of that project and this history, and I think it behooves us all to continue to make things better as we move along.”
Mendenhall recently retired from his position as the water commissioner for the Spanish Fork District, where his job was to order the amount of water needed from the Central Utah Project.
Without the water from this project, southern Utah County would look similar to places south of it like Nephi or Fillmore, Aitken said, where there is limited, dry farming.
“In the 1800s, there just wasn’t enough water for farmers there,” Mendenhall said. “They had poor crops, because there just wasn’t enough water.”
For now, the project provides irrigation and secondary water, but Mendenhall said it’s likely to change as the county grows.
“As we grow people instead of hay, it’s only natural that will change,” Mendenhall said. “That’s what will allow more people to move in.”
Those on the tour also saw the output of the original tunnel, which now is only used for emergencies.
Mendenhall said he has no idea how people originally came up with the idea to drill a hole 4 and a half miles through a mountain in order to get the water from the Colorado River drainage basin to the Great Basin drainage area, but somehow, they did. The two ends of the tunnel met in the middle in 1912. Even without modern equipment, the workers were only inches off when the two sides of the tunnel met in the middle in the early 1900s.
A newer tunnel now carries most of the water, though the original is still able to carry water in emergencies or when necessary.
The tour was also a celebration of cooperation in the water industry, Aitken said.
The CUWCD and the SWUA work together pretty well, Aitken said, but water does tend to be something people have fought about historically.
Understanding where your water comes from is an important part of history, Aitken said.
“A lot of times, you just think the water comes out of your tap when you turn the faucet on,” Aitken said.