Bighorn River Issue’s Group Update


The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) held its Fall Planning meeting on November 5, 2015 and once again combined that meeting with the Bighorn Issues Group semi-annual meeting. It was well attended.

As is par for the course, then meeting began with BOR’s recap of Water Year 2015 (which ran from Oct 1, 2014 through Sep 30, 2015) as explained by Clayton Jordan. He did a good job of capturing the events of the past water year, but skipped a few important details which are worth recognizing. Most notable is the fact that on March 1st, inflow forecasts were still projected to be normal, despite the warm week in February that caused some unexpected inflows from the loss of low level snow melt. In addition, on March 1st, BOR was approximately ten feet above the operating plan’s March 1st target elevation which exceeded even their own maximum probable operating plan. Whether this target was missed intentionally, or inadvertently or negligently, the loss of storage that would be sorely needed in the later weeks made the ensuing flood damage that much worse.

Alliance members reminded BOR that they failed to keep their promise to drop river releases slowly at the end of runoff. Embarrassingly, BOR explained to the attendees that during the regular stake-holders conference calls, BOR kept stake holders apprised of their plans for lowering river releases. They simply forgot that most of the stakeholders on those calls were present, and those folks reminded BOR that they promised drops of no more than 250 cfs twice a day (instead of 500cfs twice a day). Everyone, including BOR, recognizes that when high flows are sustained for long periods of time and banks become highly saturated, quick drops in releases cause massive sloughing of those banks. There were stakeholders in attendance who lost acres and acres of property in July during the quick drops in releases.

The superintendent of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area gave an interesting report that explained how the Park Service is not responsible for removing the sediment from the Horseshoe Bend Area. He further explained that should it somehow be undertaken, it would take approximately 2,700 dump trucks removing sediment and operating 24 hours per day, seven days a week without holidays to just match the amount of sediment entering the system each day.

A year ago, BOR solicited recommendation for changes to the operating criteria. Several dozen recommendations were received and all but five rejected with very little public discussion. One recommendation from the Alliance was to remodel the calculations for gains. This was accomplished and the new calculations will be used this winter. Another recommendation was to not necessarily lock in a fixed releases from November through March. BOR stated they were receptive to those changes. The Alliance will urge BOR to include November through March in the rule curves.

Stake holders were expecting action during this meeting on the remaining three recommendations, but BOR stated they are still studying/analyzing/modeling them, and will share their findings at a later date. For those keeping score, this means another water year under pretty much the same old criteria during the wettest months and runoff.

Lastly, plans for the hydropower generator at Afterbay is still being discussed, but it appears the original engineering that would’ve helped with the nitrogen super-saturation issues has been scrapped. The Alliance must now be very vigilant in monitoring developments with this project.

Doug Haacke
Bighorn River Alliance Advisory Commitee