I am lucky enough to live at the base of the spectacular Tetons and at the headwaters of the Snake River, a vital water artery precious to the greater Pacific Northwest region. The Snake begins its 1,078-mile journey in Yellowstone National Park and travels through and serves six states before it finds its way to the Pacific Ocean.
As a water resources economist for American Farmland Trust, I realize how special it is to live at the headwaters of an interstate river like the Snake. We are at the source. Yet the Snake River headwaters is not insulated from the effects of chronic drought plaguing Wyoming and the western U.S.
Since 1999, moderate to severe drought has gripped most of Wyoming. This year has been the driest year since 2013. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon launched a website this year for monitoring and dealing with drought from an economic, ecological and mental health perspective.
Jackson Lake reservoir, which captures the young Snake quickly after its formation and is located in Grand Teton National Park, was dammed in 1907. The dam was built to store water in dry years. In this catastrophically dry time, the Snake and the reservoir, longtime partners in this venture, can no longer serve this purpose. The dam has been releasing 4 to 6 inches of water a day (over 4,000 cubic feet per second) since the beginning of July, a release plan that will drop Jackson Lake to its lowest level since 1987.
This water is being released to make up for the massive water shortage facing the Snake River Basin and the parent Columbia River Basin. This water fulfills downstream senior water right holders’ allocations, such as the Idaho farmers along the Snake River central plains, but many farmers have already been forced to turn off their irrigation. There is only so much water to go around, and the message downstream is one of difficult days ahead.
Jackson Lake reservoir is projected to drop to 10 percent full. Emergency water releases from Jackson Lake are only a short-term solution, and not a solution we want to depend on in future years. We have to find better ways to address water needs, not only for farmers and ranchers whose job it is to feed us but for the health of the Snake River.
I received my master’s degree in agricultural and applied economics with a focus on water conservation from the University of Wyoming last year. My thesis research involved analyzing the environmental and economic costs and benefits of using less water on ranchland in the Upper Green River Basin, located just over the Gros Ventre and Wyoming mountain ranges from Jackson Hole. The Green is the primary tributary to the Colorado River, a river that is making headlines due to water shortages these days.
I interviewed ranchers who participated in a demand management pilot program implemented in the Upper Green River Basin from 2014 to 2018. Demand management is a voluntary system where government and private entities offer compensation to water users across all sectors to temporarily decrease their water use (within the limitations of water law) to decrease water demands (paid on a dollar per acre-foot of water use savings). There was a lot of interest and participation from Upper Green River Basin ranchers.
I found that the demand management payment to ranchers had to outweigh the production cost of purchasing hay or practicing rotational grazing due to reduced forage yields, the ecological cost of less water on the land and the social cost that varies person to person. My thesis committee (Kristi Hansen, Ginger Paige and Anne MacKinnon) is now a part of the Wyoming Demand Management planning team alongside the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office as a long-term program is being considered by the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.
The Snake River Basin states could learn a lot from the policies and programs being implemented by the Colorado River Basin states. A demand management program in the Snake River Basin would incentivize agricultural water users, who make up on average 80 percent of water demand, to do more with less and be compensated for the production changes.
We all have a part to play. For me it starts right here in Jackson, thinking about solutions for the drought-stricken Snake River Basin. At the base of the mountain and the top of the stream and for everyone and everything downstream.