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Jackson Hole, WY News

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Gettin’ low

The 2021 water year in the Upper Snake River basin was historic, low and dry.

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Jackson Lake

Jackson Lake as viewed from the dam on Friday in Grand Teton National Park. As of Tuesday the lake was at 15 percent of its capacity, close to its natural state from the time before the dam was completed in 1916.

Even before the slimmer-than-average snowpack melted off weeks ahead of schedule, hydrologists expected that 2021 would be a poor year for river flows and water storage.

And they were right.

Sensors reading soil moisture in places like Grand Targhee and the Lewis Lake Divide were detecting historically dry ground before the snow even melted off in earnest. Down lower in the watershed there was a warm spring and crispy, dusty conditions. Cropland in southern Idaho’s Magic Valley was thirsty, and the farmers hundreds of miles downriver from Jackson Hole held water rights to most of the 850,000 acre-feet of water the dam added to Jackson Lake.

So downriver that water went.

Flows in the Snake River itself stayed well above average throughout the summer, even while some tributaries carried less water than any other time on record.

At a rate of up to 5 inches a day, Jackson Lake emptied out. A wetter, cooler August somewhat helped, but nevertheless the impounded lake slowly started to look more like its natural self. Fully impounded Palisades Reservoir was also transformed.

Going into winter, just 15% of Jackson Lake’s added water remained. Palisades held just 5% of its capacity. The Snake River is low again, but only after an abrupt 90% reduction in flows that stranded fish and raised the hackles of anglers.

In photos, here’s a look at the current state of the lowest water levels in decades at Jackson Lake and Palisades Reservoir.

JACKSON LAKE

Fifteen percent capacity as of October 18, 2021

Jackson Lake

Colter Bay, Oct. 7.

Leek's Marina, Jackson Lake

Dozens of buoys used to moor boats at Leek’s Marina sit on dry land October 5 in Grand Teton National park.

Jackson Lake

Buoys used to moor boats at Leek’s Marina sit on dry land October 5 in Grand Teton National park.

Jackson Lake

North end of Jackson Lake and Webb Canyon, Oct. 7.

Jackson Lake

Colter Bay, October 7, 2021.

Jackson Lake

A tourist walks across Jackson Lake Dam on Friday as historically-low water levels are seen in the lake in the distance.

Jackson Lake

Elk prints dot the muddy marshland on Friday near Jackson Lake Dam as the water has receded to historically low levels.

Jackson Lake

Historically-low water levels reveal several vertical feet of Jackson Lake Dam on Friday on its west side that is usually hidden, even in the fall season.

Jackson Lake

The concrete and earth-filled section of Jackson Lake Dam fully revealed by low water levels Friday in Grand Teton National Park.

Jackson Lake

Fencing near Jackson Lake Dam that is normally underwater is revealed lined with vegetation Friday in Grand Teton National Park.

Jackson Lake

A buoy that normally alerts boaters to their proximity to Jackson Lake Dam sits on dry land Friday in Grand Teton National Park.

Jackson Lake

A buoy that normally alerts boaters to their proximity to Jackson Lake Dam sits on dry land Friday in Grand Teton National Park.

Jackson Lake

A tourist takes a selfie at the base of the concrete and earthen portion of Jackson Lake Dam on Friday in Grand Teton National Park. Water has receded to historically low levels in the lake — currently at just 15% capacity — and in Palisades Reservoir to the south. See more photographs of low water in this week’s Jackson Hole News&Guide and online at JHNewsAndGuide.com.

Jackson Lake

Marshland near Jackson Lake Dam is revealed Friday as the water has receded to historically low levels.

PALISADES RESERVOIR

Five percent capacity as of October 18, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Aerial photographs show the receded water level of Palisades Reservoir in early October — currently drained to about 5% capacity. See pages 10-11 for a story on historically low water in the Upper Snake River Basin and photographs of Jackson Lake’s remarkably low water levels.

Palisades Reservoir

Snake River looking east toward Alpine, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Snake River looking north toward Palisades Reservoir from Alpine, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Confluence of Snake River and the Grey’s River at Alpine, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir, midpoint at Indian Creek, looking north toward the dam, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir, midpoint at Indian Creek, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir, midpoint at Indian Creek, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir near Blowout Campground, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir at Big Elk Creek, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir, looking south the dam, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir near the dam, looking up Big Elk Creek, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir near the dam, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir near the dam, October 5, 2021.

Palisades Reservoir

Palisades Reservoir, looking north from the dam, October 5, 2021.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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