Water conservation

Flaming Gorge falls as drought hits higher on the Colorado River

Nick Gann fishes in Firehole Canyon Aug. 5 on the northeast rim of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Wyoming. A boating and fishing paradise on the Utah-Wyoming line, Flaming Gorge is starting to feel the effects of the mega-drought that has plagued the southwestern United States for two decades (Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

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FLAMING GORGE RESERVOIR, Wyo.– Tony Valdez didn’t mind being left dry when he bought Buckboard Marina three years ago, but that changed with the receding waters of Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

This year he has already dredged 10 feet so that boats can still use the marina. Now that Flaming Gorge is becoming a crucial emergency water supply for the region, Valdez worries the reservoir has nowhere to go but even lower.

“I mean, it’s our natural resource and it’s going away,” he said. “Water is the most precious thing we have.”

As a 20-year drought stretches further and further into the Colorado River Basin and seven western states compete for their fair share of water under the century-old Colorado River Compact, this boating and fishing paradise on the Wyoming-Utah line is a new flashpoint.

No one disputes the root of the problem: the agreement dates from a cooler, wetter time and is based on rainfall assumptions that simply no longer apply, in part due to climate change.

But as business owners like Valdez are finding out firsthand, recreation is just one of many competing priorities as growing demand in the basin’s most populous downstream states – California, Nevada and Arizona – conflicts with dwindling supply from more rural states upriver – Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Amid the jostling of farmers, ranchers, businesses, industries, municipalities and government officials, no one knows who will emerge victorious or be left behind – including the natural ecosystems that also need water.

“It’s a complicated mess. And right now the environment looks like a snake’s den because everyone’s just to themselves,” said Kyle Roerink, director of the Great Basin Water Network’s conservation group. .

In August, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton agreed for now to let upper basin states continue to work together on drought relief plans that emphasize conservation. water voluntary rather than letting the office dictate tank releases.

It’s a move welcomed by Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart, the state’s chief water regulator. “The reclamation reinforced a position that Wyoming has long agreed with,” Gebhart said. “The solution to our challenges rests on the foundation of a century of collaboration and partnership.”

Tony Valdez, owner of Buckboard Marina, looks out over the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in southwest Wyoming Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. A boating and fishing paradise on the Utah-Wyoming line, Flaming Gorge is starting to feel the effects of two decades mega-drought grips southwestern United States
Tony Valdez, owner of Buckboard Marina, looks out over the Flaming Gorge Reservoir in southwest Wyoming Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. A boating and fishing paradise on the Utah-Wyoming line, Flaming Gorge is starting to feel the effects of the two-decade mega-drought gripping the southwestern United States (Photo: Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

Gebhart acknowledged, however, that the continued drought could lead to an even lower blazing throat, with the next decision on any new levies expected in April.

Fed by the Green River and fringed by dramatic cliffs and scrubby desert, Flaming Gorge is by far the largest reservoir in the Upper Basin, which refers to the vast area covering all waters upstream from Lees Ferry on the Colorado River. in northern Arizona.

Built in the 1960s to store and control water from the Green River, which empties into Colorado in southeastern Utah, Flaming Gorge is the third largest reservoir in the Colorado River system. It is now about 75% full, compared to only 25% or in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest downstream reservoirs.

Meandering more than 66 square miles south of Green River, Wyoming, Flaming Gorge remains a renowned spot for catching giant lake trout or taking a boat to a secluded cove for a dip in cool, aquamarine waters.

Just be careful not to jump into places that were deeper a few years ago.

In April, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that as part of a drought plan for the upper basin states, it would release enough water to lower Flaming Gorge 15 feet. The goal is to help ensure the Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona can still generate power about 450 miles downstream.

So far, drawdowns this year and last have left Flaming Gorge about 6 feet lower than a year ago and 12 feet lower than two years ago, reaching lows not seen since 2005 .

In addition to boats that can’t use its marina, Valdez worries about the reservoir’s kokanee salmon, which is an important food for prized lake trout and savory game fish in their own right.

Lately, kokanee numbers have been dropping for unknown reasons. The trend could continue as the reservoir drops, reducing spawning habitat and causing lake trout to eat more kokanee, said Robert Keith, regional fisheries supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“As the reservoir goes down, the habitat available to both species is going to compact, so they’re going to overlap more,” Keith said. “So the possibility of predation is going to be greater.”

Although Wyoming only uses about 60% of the water it is entitled to under the pact, Gebhart says upper basin states have little to spare given recent flows.

The vast majority of Colorado River Basin water used in Wyoming is used to irrigate grass and alfalfa for livestock. Industry—mainly power plants and mineral processing—accounts for about 9% and towns and villages about 3%.

Campers are parked along the receding edge of Flaming Gorge Reservoir on Firehole Canyon Friday, August 5, 2022, in Wyoming
Campers are parked along the receding edge of Flaming Gorge Reservoir on Firehole Canyon Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, in Wyoming (Photo: Rick Bowmer, Associated Press)

Greater conservation by Southwest Wyoming’s 2,500 water rights holders could help keep water in the system. For example, ranchers can install more efficient irrigation with the help of government grants and other funding, said Cory Toye of Trout Unlimited.

The fish and angler habitat advocacy group has worked with ranchers on such projects in Wyoming for years and the Flaming Gorge removals have raised awareness of the issue, Toye said.

Pact member states funded efforts to increase snowfall by releasing silver iodide from planes and ground devices in Wyoming and elsewhere in the Rockies.

Cloud seeding can increase snowfall somewhat, Studies show. But the technique is unlikely to fully offset or reverse the dryness or bring Flaming Gorge back to levels threatening Buckboard Marina.

The Lucerne Valley Marina, just south of the Utah line, will have to adapt if levels continue to drop, but could still operate.

“We anchor in 200 feet of water when full,” said owner Jerry Taylor. “We’ve got quite a bit of lake drop capability. But Buckboard doesn’t.”

In the worst-case scenario, Buckboard would be stuck some distance from where the Green River flowed over 60 years ago.

For now, Valdez hopes to attract tourists who have stayed home despite high gas prices and falling waters. And he says Wyoming residents also need uncrowded places like Buckboard to enjoy it.

“People aren’t raised like that anymore, they can hunt and fish,” Valdez said. “And have a sustainable water source.”

Editor’s note: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as we approach the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact. The Associated Press, Colorado Sun, Albuquerque Journal, Salt Lake Tribune, Arizona Daily Star and Nevada Independent are working together to explore pressures on the river in 2022.

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