by Hale HarrisThe short answer to that question is Good. Indeed, the river is almost always good, which is what makes the Bighorn River such a special place. The river is full of aquatic insects and crustaceans, abundant spawning habitat, and most importantly, trout. As one of the guides on the river said, The Bighorn is like a fly fishing theme park. These manifold blessings notwithstanding, the Alliance was created to preserve, protect, and enhance the fishery, and there are issues which pose a threat to the overall health of the river. Currently, our biggest challenge regards water flows. Weve received abundant moisture the last few years, and this is generally viewed as a good thing. Weve seen an increase in the fish population, and the return of aquatic insect hatches. Yet, the new water management policy of the Bureau of Reclamation (BurRec) is problematic, to say the least. This policy dictates that lake levels are maintained at, or near, 20 feet of full pool. In case you didnt know, this target level is significantly higher than in years past. Maintaining a full lake may seem like a nice idea, but it hinders BurRecs ability to react to situations where the Wind River/Bighorn River drainage receives large amounts of moisture in a short time. Weve already experienced this scenario several times, and BurRec has been forced to spike river levels in a hurried attempt to prevent the lake from becoming too full. These high flows make it very difficult to fish the river, plus they erode river banks and channelize the streambed. This full-lake policy is puzzling in light of the original purpose for Yellowtail Dams construction. Like many dams in the west, Yellowtail was built to provide hydroelectric power, flood control, and irrigation, generally in that order of importance. Recreational opportunities are a by-product of all this, but they are generally viewed as secondary to the big three priorities. So why has BurRec adopted a policy which compromises flood control? Were scratching our heads too. Weather events are a fact of nature, and the Bureau is courting disaster. When Yellowtail Dam was completed in 1966, projections were that the lake would take three years to fill; yet, early-fall storm systems filled the lake in just three months! Inflows into the lake reached 44,000 cfs. Should we pretend that this could never happen again? And while were at it, we might consider the 1972 flood on Rapid Creek in western South Dakota. Rapid Creek is a small stream, but because of an unusual weather event, this little creek overflowed its banks and for a time actually exceeded flows of 50,000 cfs! The loss of life and the destruction of property were devastating. The Black Hills have a history of destructive floods, and this drainage is only 350 miles to the east. While severe weather events are not a frequent occurrence, shouldnt the Bureau retain some ability to react to these situations in order to mitigate potential damage? Besides flood control, the full-lake policy adversely affects power generation and profitability. As a general rule, the maximum amount of water that can be run through Yellowtail Dams turbines is 6,500 cfs. Flows above and beyond this are released through overflow spillways. We might view this additional water as wasted water from a hydropower standpoint because it generates no power and is basically lost revenue. In 2008, by BurRecs own admission, 2 million dollars in revenue was lost due to the amount of water that was spilled and could not be run through the turbines. The irony in all this is that the full-lake policy doesnt even serve the lake users interests, at least not users on the north end of the reservoir where the majority of activity occurs. The last two years have seen flooded campgrounds and excessive driftwood. The driftwood creates a hazardous situation for boaters and water skiers. So we now have an inversion of majority rule and minority rights. The interests of a small group of people on the south end of the lake are being served, to the exclusion of the majority. One of the advantages a tail-water trout fishery has over freestone streams is the lack of extreme water fluctuations. This advantage has been largely negated by BuRecs water management policy. Lets not allow them to compromise the quality of one of the worlds finest trout rivers. We need to let BuRec know we are not happy with the current management plan. You can access a draft of the Bighorn Lake Operating Criteria Evaluation Study Report at the following website: http://bighornriver.org/uploads/operating_criteria_evaluation.pdfPlease send emails to Lenny Duberstein at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments must be made before January 28, 2011. Let your voice be heard.Hale Harris is co-owner of the Bighorn Trout Shop. He and his family live and work in Ft. Smith, Montana
The Bureau of Reclamation will be holding two meetings to discuss the Draft Bighorn Lake Operating Criteria. One meeting will be in Billings, and the other in Lovell. The meetings are scheduled as follows:Billings: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 from 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm at the MSU-B Downtown Conference RoomLovell: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 from 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm at the Community CenterThese will be very important meetings for stakeholders to attend, and your comments on the operating criteria and how it affects the river are vital.
As expected, the conference call scheduled for later this month has been cancelled in lieu of a face-to-face meeting to discuss the contentious Draft Criteria. Here is the email that was circulated minutes ago:Good morning,In response to recent inquiries about the Draft Bighorn Lake Operating Criteria Evaluation Study Report (Draft Criteria), and considering the discussion that took place on last Tuesdays regularly scheduled monthly conference call, we have decided to forego a conference call for the purposes of discussing the Draft Criteria. In lieu of a conference call (as previously considered), we have scheduled two face-to-face meetings to explain the Draft Criteria in greater detail and answer your questions about the Draft Criteria, so that you will be better prepared to provide constructive comment on the document. By way of a reminder, written comments are being accepted on the Draft Criteria through January 28, 2011. The meetings are scheduled as follows:Tuesday, January 4, 2011 from 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm at the MSU-B Downtown Conference Room in BillingsandWednesday, January 12, 2011 from 12:30 pm to 4:30 pm at the Community Center in Lovell. We are hopeful that you will be able to attend one (or both) of the meetings. I think it is important that we all have a common understanding of the Draft Criteria if we are to realize improvements and continue making progress in better meeting the collective interests of all stakeholders, and I dont believe we can get there with a conference call.Have a good holiday season – I look forward to seeing you all in January.Regards,Dan JewellArea ManagerMontana Area OfficeFriends of the Bighorn River encourages all stakeholders to attend this important meeting.