The River Runs Through It (a 20 foot window, that is!)

The River Runs Through It (a 20 foot window, that is!)

by Doug Haacke, September 2009

As the 2009 water year comes to a close in a few weeks, let’s take a few minutes to look at how this year compared with last year, and what we can expect for next season.
In many ways, water years 2008 and 2009 were comparable. Both were essentially normal water years. Both experienced a delayed runoff after achieving a slightly above average snowpack. However, despite ample water, Bureau of Reclamation held back river releases to maintain lake elevation, and month after month the river experienced minimal to sub-minimal flows. As just about any fifth grader knows, if you start spring with a higher than normal lake elevation and a normal runoff/precipitation picture, it’s a pretty good bet you won’t have storage available for runoff, and be forced to release lots of water.
That’s exactly what happened this year. Dan Jewell, Area Manager for the Montana Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation started the fall of 2008 with ample storage and above average lake elevations. He kept the lake elevation up by reducing flows to the river to 2,450cfs which is below the minimum recommended flow for an optimal fishery of 2,500cfs. By December, lake elevations started setting records, and from December through May, Bighorn Lake experienced the highest lake elevations on record for that time period. This might have been a good thing had the spring forecast predicted something less than a normal water year. In reality, a normal to slightly above normal water year was forecast, and the mountains in the Bighorn Basin were peaking at around 118% of normal snowpack. When March came and the lake elevation was down only 20 feet instead of the usual 35 feet, many of us began asking Dan when he would start drafting the lake and making room for the runoff. When April came and went without any additional increase in releases, we knew we were in for some big releases once runoff started. In May Dan assured us that flows wouldn’t reach 6,500cfs and just weeks later flows went over 13,000cfs, essentially double the flows forecast by Reclamation.
Sounds an awful lot like 2008, doesn’t it? With long months of low flows, followed by massive releases during runoff, followed by low flows, it was a lot like this year. If one didn’t know better, you’d almost think a reservoir didn’t exist at Ft. Smith, and that there wasn’t a team of highly paid experts and engineers planning how to efficiently balance use of all that water.
In 2009, it wasn’t just the river users who were angry. Many lake users were hopping mad when they arrived at Bighorn Lake over the Fourth of July only to find the lake eight feet into the exclusive flood pool, and most boat launches and campgrounds closed due to driftwood and other debris blockading the launch points, as well as other amenities completely submerged. Grant Marsh Fishing Access Site on the Bighorn River was inundated and nearly destroyed by the intense releases. One is reminded that Congress has authorized the Bureau of Reclamation to manage Bighorn Lake for three purposes; hydro-electric power, irrigation and flood control. 2009 was a normal water year, and stakeholders downstream of Yellowtail Dam experienced flooding. As you can imagine, the Corps of Engineers, who manages the reservoir when lake levels reach the flood pool, were none too happy either.
When confronted with these facts during a weekly stakeholders’ conference call, Dan Jewell finally admitted that he’s doing the best he can managing the reservoir for a twenty foot window. That window, in our case, refers to the twenty feet of elevation that starts with a full lake or the top of the conservation pool of Bighorn Lake, which is a lake elevation of 3,640ft, and lake elevation 3,620ft, which represents an elevation Dan does not want to venture below. Now to put this in perspective, since the dam closed in 1967, the average window was nearly twice the size at 35 ft, and used a lower lake elevation of 3,605ft. It just makes sense that you evacuate storage to make room for runoff, especially when hard evidence exists in the form of snowpack that runoff is a certainty.
As you can imagine, Dan has support for his twenty foot window. Lake users at the south end of the lake love it, of course. From their perspective, the lake can never be full enough long enough. The National Park Service publicly asked for the twenty foot window several years ago, and following a decent water year in 2007, Dan complied, although not being required to do so. Isn’t it interesting that the Park Service and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, whose greatest number of visitors and revenues comes from the river, ignores those users. In fact, they have a resource management plan for the lake, but not the river. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking the National Park Service and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area aren’t part of this problem!

So, what’s the forecast for fall, winter and early spring? Let’s look at a few numbers to put things in perspective.
The current lake elevation is 3,641.6ft. Here we are in the middle of September and we’re still in the flood pool. Normally, lake elevations for this time of year are 15 feet lower at 3,626ft. River releases are at 3,050cfs, which is slightly higher than the average of 2,600cfs, but this would be expected when lake levels are still in the flood pool.
It seems to reason then, with Dan Jewell’s operating policies, that shortly after lake elevations come out of the flood pool (probably around the end of the month), river releases will be cut back to minimums or even less. And then, it’s just 7 or 8 months until high flows and flooding.

The Bighorn River Alliance, along with many other groups, organizations and individuals, has developed a strategy to fight Dan Jewell and the twenty foot window. That strategy will seek the assistance of Montana’s senatorial delegation and several federal agencies. We will need the support of as many folks as possible to bring this important strategy to fruition. As a member of the Bighorn River Alliance or just a friend of the Bighorn River, we hope we can count on you when the time comes to write a letter of support, or make a quick call to your local delegate. Thanks!

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