User group says BuRec damaging the Bighorn River

Alliance

A young angler floats the Bighorn River, in a photo from the Facebook page of the Bighorn River Alliance.

A group of Bighorn River water users issued a report Thursday that raps the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for managing the Yellowtail Dam in ways that have cost taxpayers, farmers, ranchers and the fishing economy tens of millions of dollars.

The report, “River at Risk,” was prepared by the Bighorn River Alliance, a nonprofit group that gives its mission as advocating for the wellbeing and balanced management of the Bighorn River.

The alliance says in the report that BuRec, which is part of the Interior Department, has been mismanaging Yellowtail Dam since 2008, when the agency changed its policies to place a high priority on keeping Bighorn Lake full enough to accommodate a boat ramp at Horseshoe Bend near Lovell, Wyo.

Yellowtail Dam is located on the river near Fort Smith, creating a reservoir, Bighorn Lake, that extends more than 70 miles upstream into Wyoming. Regulation of the river transformed the Bighorn below Yellowtail Dam into a world-famous trout stream.

In its four-page report, the Bighorn River Alliance charges that BuRec has, since 2008:

♦ Wasted $60 million worth of taxpayer revenue by allowing water to flow over the dam’s spillway during high-water releases, rather than flowing through turbines that generate electricity.

♦ Caused erosion that in some areas has increased more than 450 percent.

♦ Cost farmers and ranchers along the river at least $7 million in lost income.

♦ Caused a decline in activity of up to 40 percent for some fly shop owners in Fort Smith because of unpredictable river conditions.

Attempts to speak with a BuRec spokesperson about the charges were unsuccessful Thursday afternoon.

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The report, citing research by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said that in 2015 alone, the Bighorn River contributed an estimated $102 million — 98 percent of which was generated by nonresident anglers — to Montana’s economy.

The report also says that “wild fluctuations in river flows have wreaked havoc” on farm and ranch land along the Bighorn River from the dam to the confluence of the Bighorn with the Yellowstone River near Hysham.

After examining aerial photography and data from BuRec’s Hydromet system, the report says, it appears that the rate of riverbank erosion on the Bighorn has increased 300 percent in comparison with the years before 2008, and in some places by as much as 450 percent.

As a result of the new operating practices, the report continues, the Bighorn has seen more days of water flow exceeding 8,000 cubic feet of per second since 2008 than in all the previous 40 years combined.

Also, the report says, there has been devastating flooding on the river in eight of the past 10 years, and last year was the worst since the dam went online in 1967.

Anne Marie Emery, executive director of the alliance, said the report was issued in hopes of putting pressure on BuRec to change its policies. She said it makes no sense to hurt a flourishing river economy to benefit a relatively small boat access whose future, because of increasing sedimentation, is questionable anyway.

The alliance was formed in 1995 and has 1,500 members and followers, including landowners, anglers, farmers and ranchers, Emery said.

Doug Haacke, a Billings resident who has been a member of the alliance since 2006, said the problem is that BuRec, in its desire to keep lake levels high, manages the reservoir extremely conservatively, keeping the lake full over the winter in case there isn’t enough spring precipitation and snowmelt.

“Come springtime, if you’ve got a full lake and a lot of snowpack, there isn’t enough storage to contain it,” he said. “They have to dump it, and that sometimes gives us huge, high releases.”

Given the dam’s role in regulating water flows, Haacke said, the new policy “sort of defeats the purpose of the dam being there in the first place.”

“That’s all we’re asking, is just a balanced approach to water management,” he said.

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