BuRec official, others dispute claims from river group


Bureau of Reclamation

An aerial view of Yellowtail Dam at Fort Smith, with Bighorn Lake in the foreground and the Bighorn River in background.

The Montana area manager for the federal Bureau of Reclamation has taken issue with a report critical of the bureau’s management of Yellowtail Dam on the Bighorn River.

As we reported last week, the Bighorn River Alliance released a report saying BuRec’s operation of the dam has greatly damaged the world-class fishery below the dam and has also been injurious to farmers, ranchers, landowners and taxpayers.

Last Best News was unable to reach a BuRec spokesperson before publication, but has since spoken with Steve Davies, who has been in the Montana office for 22 years and has been the area manager for two years.

He disputed many of the points raised in the report, as did two people active in promoting the economic welfare of the area around Lovell, Wyo., which depends on flat-water recreation on Bighorn Lake, upstream of the Yellowtail Dam.

Davies said the operational changes the river group objected to came about in response to the long, dry period from 2000 to 2007. Nobody above or below the dam was happy then, he said, so BuRec helped form the Bighorn River System Issues Group, which Davies described as a “very collaborative” group that brought all stakeholders together.

With input from that group, Davies said, BuRec developed new ways of managing water flows, which went into effect in 2010 — not 2008, as the river alliance stated. However, alliance member Doug Haacke of Billings said that wasn’t quite true. BuRec might not have codified the new system of operations until 2010, he said, but the system was already in place by 2008.

In any case, Davies said it made no sense for the alliance to blame the agency for devastating floods on the river in eight of the past 10 years, and for flooding last year that was the worst since the dam went online in 1967.

Since 2010, Davies said, “we’ve had anything but normal years … and that’s a challenge for federal water managers.” In 2011, he said, there were record inflows at Yellowtail Dam. From April through July that year, he said, runoff was 220 percent of normal.

That record was eclipsed last year, when the runoff over the same period was 253 percent of normal. By way of illustration, he said, when Bighorn Lake is full it holds about a million acre feet of water. Last April through July, he said, runoff amounted to 3 million acre feet of water.

Other recent years have also been unusual, with inflows at 150 percent of normal in 2014 and 2015. There were also two relatively dry years, in 2012 and 2013, when runoff was 50 to 60 percent of normal. Only one year, 2016, was close to normal, when inflows were running at about 80 percent of normal.

Davies said there is a false expectation that because there is a dam there should never be flooding. The highest flow in the river below the dam since it was built measured 20,000 cubic feet per second, he said, but if there had been no dam in place the flow would have been 40,000 cfs in 2011, and even higher last year.

It doesn’t make sense to blame BuRec’s operational standards for flooding “when you have such a big variable with Mother Nature,” he said.

Similar words were used by Lovell, Wyo., resident Keith Grant, a former Big Horn County, Wyo., commissioner and a member of Friends of Bighorn Lake. He said BuRec “has done as good a job as Mother Nature has allowed to be done.”

Grant said advocates for the downstream fishery seem to forget that when the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area was formed, 73 Wyoming farm families were displaced and 30,000 acres of agricultural land were removed from the tax rolls.

People were promised then that the loss of ag land would be made up by a new recreational economy based on use of Bighorn Lake, with the Horseshoe Bend marina directly benefiting the Lovell area.

He also said that Friends of Bighorn Lake was formed in 2006, after those drought years virtually ended flat-water recreation. People were told then that irrigation demands downstream prevented the BuRec from keeping enough water in the lake. But when they looked into it, Grant said, they learned that BuRec was operating the dam based on an informal agreement with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which wanted to preserve the fishery below the dam.

Grant said he and Elaine Harvey, a former state legislator and a member of Lovell Inc., which promotes economic development, had to go back to Washington, D.C., and fight to gain access to BuRec’s foundational operating procedures. Harvey said those documents all stated that the “economic impacts (created by the dam) would be mitigated by a tourism economy built by recreation on the lake.”

She said the documents also emphasized the creation of wildlife habitat. By contrast, she said, the downstream fishery got one sentence in all those reports.

Haccke said that shouldn’t be surprising. Planning for the dam started before World War II, when streams were often used as open sewers. No one then had any inkling that a world-class trout stream would be created by the dam, he said, but now that it has, it’s hard to say it’s unimportant.

Haacke said there are times at the height of the fishing season when more boats are launched below the dam in one day than are launched all summer at Horseshoe Bend.


Steve Davies

Davies, the BuRec area manager, denied that Bighorn Lake levels are set to keep Horseshoe Bend in operation, as the river alliance said in its report. Last year, he said, the lake was below the boat ramps there from March until the second week of June.

He said BuRec doesn’t keep the lake full over the winter, contrary to what the alliance said, but establishes a winter flow in November aimed at bringing the lake level down by 23 feet by the end of March, to accommodate spring runoff. The agency is constantly checking forecasts and adjusting flows based on its findings. Last year, for example, based on runoff projections, the reservoir was drawn down 36 feet from full over the winter, Davies said.

He also disputed a claim by the river alliance that BuRec was costing taxpayers millions of dollars by allowing water to flow over the dam’s spillway during high-water releases, rather than flowing through turbines that generate electricity.

He said BuRec tries to keep winter flows at a constant rate to help the fishery, to generate power and to prevent ice jams on the river. But the turbines can’t handle more than 8,000 cubic feet per second, so some water is going to go over the spillway during high runoff.

Also, he said, recent figures have been skewed because BuRec is in the middle of a six-year project to modernize the power plant. Only three of the four generating units have been in use over the past three years, he said, and one will be out for the next three years as well, as they work through the entire system.

Grant said one motivating factor for the Friends of Bighorn Lake was hearing from the director of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area more than 10 years ago, when he said Horseshoe Bend was a “dinosaur” doomed to extinction, so there was no point in trying to preserve it.

But “it’s against the law to desecrate a national park,” Grant said, and allowing an important recreational use to fade away would be desecration. He and Harvey said BuRec has an obligation to uphold the original intent of the recreation area’s creation.

Harvey said Horseshoe Bend has had trouble with increasing sedimentation, but only because money originally set aside to deal with incoming silt was used in the first year of the dam’s operation to raise a causeway that had been destroyed by flooding. She said it’s still BuRec’s job to deal with that silt.

Mostly, Grant and Harvey think the river alliance is being unfair by continuing to criticize BuRec rather than working with the Bighorn River System Issues Group to find a common solution to everyone’s problems.

“I’m afraid that if this goes too far, we’ll have to get the governor involved again and sue the National Park Service for not doing their jobs,” Grant said. He said the National Park Service is charged with determining lake levels, and BuRec is supposed to operate the dam to meet those benchmarks.

Harvey said the point of the river study group was “to share the wealth and share the pain.”

The river alliance is “trying to make us the bad man,” Grant said. “From the start, all we’ve wanted was to have equal representation.”

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