When this year’s mediocre snowpack gave way to a balmy and hot spring, followed by a smoky summer, it became clear that this was going to be a historically low water year. The 3,000 cfs of vibrant blue water exiting from Jackson Lake Dam into the Snake River starkly contrasted with the trickles flowing out of tributaries and the high-and-dry marinas on Jackson Lake and Palisades Reservoir — a reminder that the Idaho farmers do indeed own most of the water.
Veteran anglers and river guides Paul and Jean Bruun sounded the alarm with the Bureau of Reclamation, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest over the summer, pushing the agencies to develop a plan for drawing down from high flows to the predetermined winter flows of 280 cfs.
They and other valley old-timers recalled when flows in the 1970s and ’80s had been dropped precipitously to extremely low levels, and the fish and macroinvertebrate stranding and loss that followed. Those conditions spurred the Jackson Hole Trout Unlimited chapter and Game and Fish to go to bat for the purchase of water rights by the state of Wyoming in the 1990s to guarantee minimum winter flows for the health of the fishery. Then and now, Trout Unlimited and partners recognize the importance of conserving this uniquely intact native Snake River cutthroat trout fishery for the local ecosystem, community and economy.
Since the 1990s an established set of semiannual interagency meetings led by the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, as well as a public meeting in May, has guided communication and coordination around water forecasting, research, projects and management in the upper Snake. Water management is somewhat of an art as well as a science, and the Bureau of Reclamation must first and foremost meet the demands of the Idaho irrigators and Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control concerns, then balance input and feedback from Game and Fish, the park, the forest, rafting outfitters, fishing guides and lake boaters.
At this year’s interagency meeting on Sept. 16 the plan for the flow drawdown was discussed. Initially scheduled for four days, it was upped to five and a half at the urging of Game and Fish and Grand Teton. Game and Fish and the park had hoped for an even longer drawdown, to give fish more of a chance to move and settle into winter locations, but the Bureau of Reclamation did not have any more wiggle room — it was working to ensure Palisades was not completely drained, and also had to empty Jackson Lake by Oct. 5 for a required dam maintenance inspection.
Amidst our own concerns as well as those from community members, Trout Unlimited and agency partners sprang into action to document the impacts of this year’s rapid drawdown, with an eye toward informing better management in the future. We took repeat photo points, set up time-lapse cameras, flagged locations of stranded fish, rescued stranded fish and took repeat river imagery by drone. We were heartened to see many fishing guides, outfitters, community members, the Snake River Fund and Teton Science Schools students answer the call to help with this effort.
We will be compiling and analyzing data over the next few months, and will be meeting with the Bureau of Reclamation in the coming weeks to discuss preliminary findings and recommendations for future management. Unfortunately, while we do know that a lot of fish were stranded this year, it is difficult to know how it compares to stranding in a more typical water year or other environmental stressors. However, one silver lining to this year’s rapid drawdown, including the community’s concern, is that it has led to increased communication among the agencies that make the decisions about water management on the Snake.
An additional annual meeting in late July to discuss the drawdown plan and build in time to respond to feedback from fish managers has been scheduled. More research to better inform best practices around drawdown rates and trigger levels to prevent stranding has been proposed. And Trout Unlimited is suggesting a public meeting be held in January to debrief this year’s water operations, present the results of the documentation efforts and outline future steps to minimize fish losses (stay tuned for details).
There is a long history of collaboration involving water management in the Snake River, stemming originally from a place of contention and concern for protecting our cutthroat trout fishery. Future water years in the Greater Yellowstone are likely to become warmer, drier and less predictable, calling for even greater collaboration, communication and research on best practices. If this December’s dry spell is any indication of the winter ahead, we’ll need it.