Extra releases from Flaming Gorge suspended

Posted 3/21/23

BuRec cancels imminent draws on Flaming Gorge

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Extra releases from Flaming Gorge suspended




The Bureau of Reclamation suspended extra “drought response” releases from Flaming Gorge Reservoir Tuesday at the request of Wyoming and the other three Upper Colorado River Basin states.

The reservoir, which straddles the Wyoming-Utah border, was tapped for an extra 500,000 acre-feet of water starting in May 2022 to help ensure that water levels downstream at Lake Powell don’t drop low enough to threaten hydroelectric power generation at Glen Canyon Dam this year. An estimated 463,000 acre-feet of extra water was delivered before officials suspended the plan this month — two months ahead of schedule.

The “drought response” action met its purpose, according to officials. Plus, Mother Nature has mitigated worries of Lake Powell dipping to critical levels — for now.

Above-average snowpack and rainfall across much of the West this winter has improved the 2023 outlook for Lake Powell and provides an opportunity to begin to replenish Flaming Gorge, which may be tapped again if conditions demand it, according to the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Actual hydrologic conditions indicate that continuing releases from Flaming Gorge per the 2022 plan are no longer needed to protect the critical elevations at Lake Powell,” the UCRC stated in a Feb. 27 letter to the BOR. “Taking this action now will provide greater flexibility in consideration of future [Drought Response Operations Agreement] operations if dry conditions persist or worsen.”

Flaming Gorge is the third-largest reservoir in the Colorado River Basin system. Its primary purpose is to serve as a backup to help balance water storage, particularly for the upper basin region. Lake Powell is also a storage reservoir in the upper basin. The BOR previously tapped Flaming Gorge for extra flows in 2021 to the tune of 125,000 acre-feet of water. And before winter brought substantial snow and rain this season, locals worried that calls for supplemental water from the reservoir might continue indefinitely, transforming the popular recreation area.

“I’m happy that they’re suspending the releases,” Green River resident and Flaming Gorge angler Chris Taylor said. “I understand why [the extra releases] are necessary. But it’s a sad thing to watch the place where I grew up, you know, get to a level that I’ve never seen before in my lifetime.”

The unusually wet winter doesn’t mean the Colorado River crisis is over, however.

The West is still in the grips of a 23-year drought, and experts warn that climate change and growing demand will continue to sap the Colorado River. In California, for example, where heavy snowpack in the Sierras and a series of “atmospheric rivers” promise to refill reservoirs, three to four more similar seasons would be necessary to end the drought, water expert Newsha Ajami of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory told Salon.

Some climate experts are skeptical that the moist winters will continue, instead describing what’s happening in the West as a transition to a period of “aridification,” and projecting that Lake Powell and Lake Mead might never refill.

Coming to terms with that dire outlook, Colorado River stakeholders continue to negotiate how they will live with less water. In fact, observers say the upper basin states, in their call to suspend Flaming Gorge releases, are staking their position for future negotiations with lower basin states.

As the BOR tapped Flaming Gorge to help support Lake Powell it also plans to hold 480,000 acre-feet in Lake Powell so that it can be released later this summer to help supplement Lake Mead in the lower basin.

Although permissible under the Drought Response Operations Agreement, Wyoming and the upper basin states worry that such actions essentially allow the lower basin states to become reliant on upper basin water storage via emergency drought measures, which Wyoming officials say could jeopardize future water rights.

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