Frank Johnson’s Overview of River and Lake Management


The following is an exchange of letters between Frank Johnson, a member of the Big Horn River Alliance and Mr. Dan Jewell, Area Manager, Montana Office of the Bureau of Reclamation.
After many years of drought and low river flows in the Big Horn River we have has two years of normal or near normal precipitation, snow fall and spring run-off. The BOR has changed the management of flows from Yellowtail Dam in such a way as to be damaging and potentially dangerously damaging to our recreational opportunities and to the biology of the river. Most importantly, the concern is for the biology of the river. Extreme low flows at the wrong times of year and extreme high flows during early summer and the new policy of maintaining, in layman’s terms, a full lake at all times is more than just a little frightening to those of us who care about the river.
This concern about the well being of the river prompted this exchange of letters.


Mr. Dan Jewell
Area Manager, Montana Area Office
Bureau of Reclamation
P. O. Box 30137
Billings, Mt 59107 – 0137

July 3, 2009

Dear Mr. Jewell,

I am writing to you regarding management of Big Horn Lake and flows in the Big Horn River below Yellowtail Dam.

I understand that there are more and new demands being placed on you regarding lake elevations and river flows. I also understand that you constantly face potential issues with nature – weather events, drought, and flooding. I also understand that it is your charge to generate power, and to provide for irrigation and flood mitigation. Further, I understand that hind sight is 20 – 20.

Please understand, too, that when I get upset I also tend to be rather sarcastic.
Forgive me for I must be upset.

I’ve been using both the lake and the river since the dam was constructed and I really fail to understand what is going on with storage and flow management. I do not understand why the resource cannot be managed for the benefit of all. Particularly, why do I detect this seeming obsession over the past two seasons to keep the lake so full all year? I hate to see this media promoted controversy between the lake users and the river users. It is not healthy for the users or the resource.

I think you can manage water for all users in a better way, and that you should manage for all users. It seems that you are only trying to put out the fires on the squeakiest wheel. During the past two springs you have not, for the most part, been kind to the trout, the anglers or the businesses on the river. I would, however, argue that there are at least two times as many people using the river
as use the lake. I charge that not all the usage figures I see floating around are accurate. The usage figures I’ve attached, although not scientific or over a long period of time are accurate. I was there doing the counts. I really believe that sensibility should be the watch-word here. This perceived conflict between lake and river users is not necessary. Such a divisive approach is not mine. I charge you to manage for all users.

I have some questions:
What is going on with this business of the magic lake elevation of 3620 on Memorial Day weekend? It doesn’t make sense to me considering the fact that on Memorial Day Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 2:00pm there were ZERO boat trailers in the parking lot of Horseshoe Bend Marina. On Memorial Day Sunday this year there were 6 boat trailers at Horseshoe Bend Marina. At the same time in 2008 there were 19 boat trailers at Ok-A-Beh Marina and 103 boat trailers at the fishing access sites on the river below the dam while river flows were at extreme low levels. I and others did these counts as an effort to educate ourselves as to real usage. I might also add that I took photographs of the parking lots every time I went to Horseshoe Bend. Please look at the numbers (attached).

Why seek that lake elevation at that time if Horseshoe Bend is not being used, or being used so little? Why do those few early season users not go to Barry’s Landing which has a much lower launch elevation? I would suggest you seek the Horseshoe Bend launch elevation during the third weekend of June? That’s when that marina begins to be used. That’s the weekend the Friends of Big Horn Lake have their “Big Horn Lake Day”. With typical bad weather over Memorial Day Weekend and so little use why not have another three weeks to manage spring runoff and recognize your responsibilities for flood control should there be weather events. I don’t see how you can maintain such historic high lake elevations and not face flooding problems at some time. With these high lake elevations I see that there have already been problems with dam leakage, ice on the dam, dangerous debris on the lake, flooded camp grounds, extreme high flows in the river, loss of business to businesses serving river users, loss of business to businesses serving lake users, stream bank and stream bed erosion, and even some lowland flooding.

Mr. Jewell, relating to the loss of business, I and many others took a pay cut during this extreme high water event on the river. Did you?? I think that keeping that lake so full all winter and spring was irresponsible on your part.

At the management meeting on April 2nd, 2009 it was suggested that you increase river flows to avoid such happening. You brushed off that idea and said the flow would be only 5500 csf or some such thing. Yea, right.

Why does Barry’s Landing not become part of the equation? Is it simply because Barry’s is located in Montana? Or does it have to do with the Lovell Chamber of Commerce or does it have to do with the National Park Service. It is a question I will ask Mr. Case when I meet with him soon.

Where did the spirit of cooperation and coordination between your area of responsibility (Montana) and the dams in Wyoming go? The people who manage Buffalo Bill and Boysen dams in Wyoming and you guys in Billings seem to manage as if you are on different planets. Why should it surprise you when they increase flows? As I recall at one time all three reservoirs were managed from the same office – what a logical idea. What caused the split?

Why, during early 2008 were you so insistent on maintaining such low flows – 1789csf May 23, 2008 well below minimum flow 2500csf suggested by Montana FWP for any successful spawning and recruitment. And then up to more than 10,000csf on June 19, 2008. You were begged to give more water to the river and very bluntly refused to do so. Why? Why did you not increase flows much earlier – for the benefit of all and most importantly the trout?

You did the same thing this year. The lake was at a historic high level, and there was no reason for flows as low as you maintained during March, April and May. Using the Friends of the Bighorn River reservoir simulator, we demonstrated in late March that using the forecasted inflows (primarily snowmelt) that flows of 2800csf in March, 3200csf in April and 4500csf in May would have satisfied all concerns except a half dozen boaters on Memorial Day. You persisted in keeping releases down and everyone except you saw the lake going high in the flood pool, huge releases and lake campgrounds flooding along with the other problems herein listed.

Please rethink your techniques for managing normal or near normal water years. I understand that we are just following a lot of drought years. I hope that you start getting it right before all of our fish and aquatic insects are in the Gulf of Mexico and that there are still a few lake boaters who still have props on their boats and their boat hulls are intact.

These are tough times Mr. Jewell. Because of the general poor economy the businesses in the Big Horn River Valley have had to scratch to get customers and now with these dramatically high flows customers have cancelled visits that were booked month ago. Businesses who normally rent boats to the general public have backed off because of the dangerously high flows in the river. I can show you a stack of cancellations from just a few outfitters that would bring tears to your eyes.

I’ve attached several charts and graphs regarding my boat trailer counts during the year 2008

As you can see I am copying this letter to others. Some of whom might be more understanding of the need to manage Big Horn Lake in a more sensible manner and address the needs of all users.

Thank you.

Frank F. Johnson
11 Spring Creek Lane
Sheridan, WY 82801

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