At the turn of the 20th century, farmers in the southern half of Utah County depended on the Spanish Fork River to provide them with irrigation water. However, the Spanish Fork River was simply unreliable. The farmers were forced to use the water when it came and not when they needed it. Albert Swenson, a local farmer, said " . . .we used to get one crop of alfalfa, and that was it. During a dry year, we just burned up." This greatly hampered and limited the crop production of the area. One possibility of solving this problem was to harness the water of the Strawberry River and divert it to Utah County. This would be done creating a reservoir in the Strawberry Valley and channeling that water to eventually end up in the Spanish Fork River.
Utah State Senator Henry Gardner, Spanish Fork mayor Heber C. Jex and others were among the first to seriously consider creating a reservoir in the Strawberry Valley. After some preliminary engineering work in 1902, it was determined that the project would be prohibitively expensive and impossible to fund from local resources. U. S. Senator Reed Smoot from Utah petitioned the newly created U. S. Reclamation Service (USRS) for approval and funding. In 1903, the USRS started to investigate the feasibility and by 1905 approved the Strawberry Valley Project. Later that year, President Theodore Roosevelt officially approved and set apart funding for the project. The federal government provided funding and engineering expertise under the agreement that the beneficiaries of the project would manage and operate the facilities and eventually repay the construction cost of $3.5 million.
The finalized plan for the Strawberry Valley Project was to create a reservoir in the Strawberry Valley that would be fed by the Strawberry River and Indian Creek along with other smaller tributaries. But, since the valley was actually a part of the Colorado River drainage basin and not part of the Great Basin drainage area, the water from the reservoir would not naturally flow to the Spanish Fork River. The Wasatch Mountains divided the Strawberry Valley from the Great Basin. In order to overcome this obstacle, a tunnel was to be constructed underneath four miles of the Wasatch Mountains to connect the reservoir to the Diamond Fork River, which would then flow into the Spanish Fork River.
Construction on the project began with the West Portal of the Strawberry Tunnel in 1906. Progress was extremely slow and difficult. Drilling progressed at only 7 feet per week and to avoid the frequent cave-ins, extensive shoring had to be installed. By 1907, the workers had drilled approximately 350 feet of a 19,500-foot tunnel. Due to a lack of funds and sluggish work, drilling on the tunnel was suspended.
The suspension of work on the tunnel allowed construction crews to build a hydroelectric power plant along the Spanish Fork River to provide power to the construction effort and to the towns affected by the project. A 16 feet by 70 feet diversion dam was built at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon to divert the water into a concrete lined canal that would provide water for the plant. The 8,000 feet canal could carry 500 cubic feet of water per second (cfs), of which 250 cfs would be for the power plant and the other 250 cfs would go to the Strawberry Highline Canal to be distributed for irrigation.
In 1908, when the plant was finished, new electric powered Sullivan Air Rock drills were brought in to continue the work on the tunnel. The Air Rock drills worked so well, that two more drilling crews were used to continue the work and speed the tunnel construction. In 1911, work began on the East Portal of the tunnel that would connect to the reservoir. Finally, on June 20, 1912 at 7 AM, air drills broke through and the two sides of the tunnel were connected. Survey work was done so well that the two tunnels were merely two inches off when they met. After the entire tunnel was lined with concrete, the first water was released from the reservoir in 1913.
The Strawberry Dam was first started in 1911 and completed in 1913. It is an earth filled dam with a concrete core that stands 72 feet tall and 366 feet wide at the mouth of the Strawberry Valley. Scrapers pulled by a team of eight horses and pushed by another team of four horses gathered the enormous amount of earth needed to create the dam. This was then loaded in horse drawn belly-dump wagons and transported to the dam site. Once at the dam, the material was leveled by a horse drawn grader while a steam powered roller compacted it. This type of roller required two men to run the machine and another six to constantly provide water. Soon after the dam was finished, the Indian Creek Dike was constructed in a similar fashion to shore up the reservoir.
At the same time that the dam was being constructed, a system of canals was being put in place in south Utah County. The Highline canal and many of its laterals were built to service the Payson, Santaquin, and Genola areas while the Mapleton Canal was built to service the upper bench areas near Mapleton and Springville.
As originally mandated, the users of the water from Strawberry Reservoir were required to pay back the federal government over the next few decades. But, farmers ran into difficult times during the 1920's as the values of their crops dropped dramatically during The Great Depression and many could not pay what they owed. In 1926, the government officially handed over the operation and maintenance of the facilities to the Strawberry Water Users Association with the understanding that the government loan would eventually be paid off. Forty-eight years later, in 1974, the Strawberry Water Users Association made its final payment to the government and was cleared of all debt to the government.
Today southern Utah County farms produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains as well as livestock. The reservoir and canal system irrigates approximately 42,500 acres and helps to support many thriving farming communities and towns. In fact, between the years 1900 to 1905 the city of Payson was dying rapidly. People were leaving and selling their homes at a mere fraction of the cost to build it. But by 1922, only nine years after the completion of the Strawberry Valley Project, Payson and the surrounding areas had doubled in size. New schools, homes, factories, railroads, and other businesses were quickly established. Ever since then, the towns of southern Utah County have been thriving and steadily growing.
The Strawberry Reservoir is used for recreational activities such as swimming, boating and water skiing. It is also considered one of Utah's finest fisheries with Brook Trout, Rainbow Trout, and CutThroat Trout. It is estimated to produce more fish meat per acre than the surrounding cattle grazers can produce beef per acre. In fact, the state record for CutThroat Trout came from Strawberry and weighed in at 26 pounds while 18-20 lbs. Rainbow Trout are routinely caught.