Montana Outdoors: Bighorn River management needs unified approach
Flooding has closed Grant Marsh fishing access site on the Bighorn River. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

There's yet another skirmish breaking out in the water wars on the Bighorn River. In the past, it was battles because there was too little water to go around. Now, it's too much water.

Caught in the middle is the Montana Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, trying to keep both combatants happy in times of plenty as well as scarce times as it regulates flows out of Yellowtail Dam at Fort Smith.

A strong winter snowpack has been melting fast in the high country of Wyoming and is sending torrents of water down the Bighorn and Shoshone River systems. All that water is coming together behind Yellowtail Dam in 70-mile-long Bighorn Lake.

Inflows to Bighorn Lake, primarily from Boysen Reservoir, upstream on the Bighorn, and Buffalo Bill Reservoir, up the Shoshone River, were at 14,666 cubic feet per second. Outflows from the lake though the dam were at 12,828 cfs.

The lake is currently 5 feet up into the flood pool and still rising. The flood pool is the storage area reserved at the top of the reservoir pool to absorb potentially catastrophic inflows to the lake that would cause flooding if it all was released downstream.

BuRec officials said last week that the lake was rising 8 inches per day and stood at 3,645.8 feet of elevation as of Friday.

Downstream flooding

Meanwhile, heavy flows going down the Bighorn River into Montana flooded and closed Grant Marsh fishing access site, below Hardin, causing as-yet-uncalculated damage in the process.

Why is this happening?

Blame it on BuRec's virtually impossible task of trying to keep everyone happy among Bighorn River and Bighorn Lake users. In all but absolutely ideal weather and flow conditions, somebody is going to get angry. The further things get away from ideal, the more the angry venom flows.

On one side in the battle, you've got the Bighorn Lake interests, primarily at Lovell, Wyo., and their allies in the National Park Service. Historically, their goal has been in keeping Bighorn Lake at the highest possible level - at full recreational pool, so there's plenty of water at Horseshoe Bend Recreation Area - and they want it that way pretty much year-round, even if it means going up into the flood pool or sending torrents of floodwater downriver during times like this.

On the other side, you've got Bighorn River interests in Montana and their allies in Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Historically, they've wanted good flows for trout below the dam - a steady 3,500 cfs or more if possible and absolutely no lower than 1,500 cfs. They want the dam outflows managed so that there are the maximum allowable releases to the river while keeping water out of the flood pool and providing reasonable summer recreation levels on the lake above.

A sideshow to the whole issue is Horseshoe Bend Recreation Area. The area's useful days are numbered due to heavy siltation on the Wyoming end of the lake. Silt has raised the minimum boat launch lake level there 25 feet in the past 20 years. It's filling in and someday will be unusable despite the dollars that are pumped into keeping it alive.

In the end, BuRec is left with a balancing act between lake and river interests in addition to catering to electrical power generation, tribal interests, irrigation water rights and contractual users.

Lakers win

This year, the balance was tipped strongly toward the lake interests as water was held back throughout the winter and spring despite snowpack that went far, far above average. Lake levels were held high. That created the torrential outflows and flooding problems now. Montana is screaming.

A few years back, the balance was tipped the other way as water was sent downriver and expected inflows to the lake never materialized due to drought conditions. Lake levels were down. Wyoming was screaming.

The screaming on both sides eventually dragged state governments and congressional delegations into the issue to put more pressure on lake managers and do a little screaming of their own.

If there's an answer to the water wars on the Bighorn, it's to stop all the anger and screaming and to simply let BuRec do its job. BuRec needs to use the best snow and water information and computer modeling possible - and then to tweak it or use new modeling if it does a better job of water management.

There also needs to be a more unified approach to the entire Bighorn River drainage. Currently, the upstream reservoirs at Boysen and Buffalo Bill are run out of the Wyoming Area Office. The Montana Area Office gets to make decisions on Yellowtail. Somebody needs to view this as an entire system with coordinated decision-making for the betterment of all three. And that takes more than talking between the offices. It means having the ability to take action - not just reaction.

Should the users have input? Certainly. Should the users and their allies be able to call the shots on how the system is run or how the balance should be tipped? Absolutely not.

Let's face it. Drought times will come. Big water years will come. And, it seems, there are few years that are in between.

It's time to let the professionals at BuRec do their jobs to even things out as best as possible without tipping the balance in either direction and to manage the Bighorn in the best interests of all users.

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