The drawdown of reservoirs in preparation for spring runoff will leave some boat ramps high and dry for the busy Memorial Day weekend.
“That’s always the balancing act, how much do you release and how much do you hold,” said Buck Feist, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The BuRec is in charge of dam operation at Canyon Ferry and Bighorn reservoirs.
The Army Corps of Engineers sought the lowering of reservoirs in the Missouri River system to stem the effect of possible flooding as mountain snowpack in Montana and Wyoming rose above average.
The Corps is still smarting from criticism from Dakota lawmakers after an unusual spring rainstorm in 2011 boosted the Yellowstone River and forced the agency to dump huge amounts of water, causing flooding in the Dakotas.
With the low water at reservoirs this year, though, some anglers and boaters are wondering if the Corps is being too cautious.
The effect of the spring reservoir drawdowns may be most apparent at Canyon Ferry, where only two boat ramps are usable on the 25-mile long lake that is one of the most popular fisheries in the state.
As a consequence, some campers have called off reservations at popular sites at opposite ends of the reservoir — the Silos on the south end and Kim’s Marina near the dam.
“We had a lot of cancellations this last week,” said Jodi Smith at the Silos KOA. “Hopefully, they’ll come through and we’ll have enough water for everybody.”
Smith added that those boaters who are launching are finding the “fishing is the best it’s been in a long time for trout, walleye and messes of perch.”
At the opposite end of the lake, Yacht Basin Marina’s boat launch is usable but there is no courtesy dock at the boat launch. And, another 5 to 6 feet of water is needed to launch the gas dock.
Canyon Ferry Dam manager Bill Dykes said the reservoir is rising about one-third of a foot a day — about two feet a week — with 140 percent of the drainage’s snowpack still in the mountains. BuRec had predicted a rise to an elevation of 3,782 by this weekend but as of Thursday it was still two feet shy because of cold days and little rain.
Closer to Billings, Bighorn Reservoir’s Ok-A-Beh Marina will not be open as the National Park Service continues its search for a concession operator at the north end of the reservoir. The boat launch is still usable, as is the one at Barry’s Landing on the opposite end of the lake.
Flooding on the horizon
Water levels on Montana’s rivers have been spiking this week as temperatures have warmed, although many rivers were already running above the long-term median.
Flows into Canyon Ferry were running at more than 12,000 cfs with releases at 8,500 cfs on Thursday. Inflows to Bighorn Reservoir were about 7,000 cfs with releases at 8,300 cfs.
Rivers are rising as warmer weather melts mountain snowpack that sat at about 156 percent of normal statewide on Thursday. A cool spring has kept runoff from peaking, while adding more snow to the mountains.
That means that many mountain campgrounds and roads are closed because they are wet or still snowed in. The Beartooth Pass has been plowed and will open Friday at 9 a.m.
Also, inside Yellowstone National Park, Dunraven Pass between Tower Junction and Canyon will be open to park travelers. The fishing season opens in the park on Saturday, but anglers are likely to find the water high and off color.
River flows are likely to climb over the weekend as temperatures are predicted to hit 80 degrees on Thursday and Friday and stay in the upper 70s on Saturday.
“The warm temperatures should produce some pretty good snowmelt and pretty good river rises through the weekend,” said Albert Richmond of the National Weather Service.
Outdoor recreationists will find generally warm conditions through the weekend with the chance of localized severe thunderstorms late Saturday or Saturday night as a cold front moves through with possible hail or heavy rain.
Fort Peck rising
Such conditions are of significant interest to those traveling to Fort Peck Reservoir, which has gravel roadways known for turning into greasy gumbo mud when wet. Travelers to the region can find road reports on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge’s website.
Fort Peck’s water level was rising at a rate of about one-tenth of a foot a day as inflows hit 17,600 cfs on Thursday as the dam released 9,000 cfs. The reservoir level sat at 2,227 feet on Thursday with all boat ramps serviceable, according to John Daggett of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Fort Peck Dam.
An elevation of 2,223 is the bottom of the Crooked Creek boat ramp, which in low water is often the ramp left high and dry at Fort Peck.
“It seems like fishermen are pretty ingenious,” Daggett said. “If they can figure out how to go, they do it.”
But he said it’s nicer for bigger boats to have at least three feet of water on the ramp.
Tongue River Reservoir State Park has plenty of water to launch boats although the reservoir level is low. The reservoir sat at an elevation of 3,422 on Thursday. The spillway crest is 3,428.