FLAMING GORGE RESERVOIR—The shoreline of this large reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border has steadily receded this summer as the Bureau of Reclamation pumped more water out to help maintain critical water levels 500 miles away at Lake Powell.

The water shrunk from boat ramps and forced marinas to scoot docks ever inward. By September, 6 feet of vertical drop in the water level translated into vast areas of exposed lakebed, leaving many boat ramps on the northern reaches of the reservoir high and dry. All told, the reservoir’s elevation is about 12 feet lower today than two years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Thousands of acres that had been underwater for 58 years now comprise a rainbow of boggy sediment, grasses and invasive plants.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez and his staff scrambled all summer to keep boat docks in the water, but they couldn’t always keep up. Two large floating docks near a drop-off sank so low that their access ramps became too steep to safely walk. Toxic cyanobacterial blooms have also migrated further down the lake.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observes toxic cyanobacteria blooms at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“I can’t take my grandkids or my dogs to the water,” Valdez said, motioning to big green globs and sheets of muck as he stood on a boat dock. “We’re losing our marina. It will be gone after next year.”

When Valdez bought the marina in 2019, he immediately began making renovations. It was a solid investment, he believed, for a popular service at the largest recreational draw in southwest Wyoming. 

The BOR had maintained seasonably stable water levels at Flaming Gorge since 1964 when the dam was completed. Businesses in Wyoming and Utah built an economy around the fishermen, boaters, bird-watchers and others drawn to the massive impoundment.

Things began to change, however. Valdez first noticed that vehicles and boat trailers with plates from California, Arizona and other southwestern states became increasingly prevalent at the marina, he said, as reservoirs along the Colorado River began drying up.

Campers, seen here Sept. 26, 2022, are set up in areas previously under water across the bay from the Buckboard Marina at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

More than 20 years of drought — intensified by human-caused climate change — have pushed the Colorado River Basin and the 40 million people who depend on it into a water crisis. The system’s two largest reservoirs, Powell and Lake Mead, sank below 30% capacity this summer — the lowest levels since they were constructed. If the situation worsens, Powell and Mead could reach “deadpool” status at which the reservoirs would no longer release water downstream into the Colorado River.

The crisis is traveling upstream to places like Flaming Gorge, where it has implications for everything from riparian ecosystems to economic livelihoods. Currently, Flaming Gorge is at about 74% storage capacity, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Whether the reservoir shrinks further depends on whether the BOR will continue to tap Flaming Gorge and how quickly it might be naturally replenished.

Emergency water supply

In a legal sense, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is fed by headwaters in western Wyoming, was created for a moment like this. Its primary purpose, according to federal officials and Colorado River Compact scholars, is to serve as a backup water bank to help maintain the Colorado River system. Specifically, Flaming Gorge and a handful of other reservoirs in the upper Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are key to ensuring a minimum flow of 7.5 million acre-feet of water at Lees Ferry just downstream of Powell on a running 10-year average.

“We’re losing our marina. It will be gone after next year.”

Tony Valdez, Buckboard Marina

So far, the upper basin states have met the threshold. Nonetheless, when Powell and Mead saw drastic lows in 2021, the BOR drew an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge. This past spring when the situation in the lower basin states became even more dire, the BOR initiated a draw of an additional 500,000 acre-feet, estimating a 15-foot vertical drop in the reservoir over the water season ending in April 2023.

The Drought Response Operations Agreement, signed by Colorado River Compact stakeholders in 2019, authorizes the BOR to make those, and possibly additional emergency draws from Flaming Gorge, to help maintain critical water levels and hydropower generation at Powell and Mead. If this summer is any indication, continual draws from the reservoir might drastically alter an aquatic ecosystem and fishery that local businesses have relied on for decades.

Wyoming is one of four upper-basin states governed by the Colorado River Compact and associated laws that require 7.5 million acre-feet of water to flow past Lees Ferry, Arizona, annually. (Colorado Foundation for Water Education)

“This has been held at a premium, high-water mark, recreational lake for [58] years,” Valedz said. “Why wasn’t this addressed 15 years ago if we knew this was coming?”

The BOR is expected to decide whether to implement another “extra” draw from Flaming Gorge in April 2023.

Flaming Gorge fishery

Kokanee salmon and trophy-sized lake trout draw tens of thousands of visitors to Flaming Gorge each year, supporting a recreational economy in southwest Wyoming and northeast Utah. But as the lake is drawn down, water recedes from shallow shorelines and fish are forced into a smaller space, essentially shrinking the fishery toward the dam side of the reservoir.

Fishing guides and Wyoming Game and Fish have cooperated to maintain an appropriate balance to the predator-prey relationship between lake trout and kokanee, according to Recon Angling owner Shane DuBois. Now, the decreasing water levels threaten to drastically alter that balance and may require shifting management strategies. 

Recon Angling owner Shane Dubois (left) and Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observe water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Kokanee spawning beds have been exposed, which will force the fish to spawn in areas covered in silt, reducing the reproduction success rate, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Fisheries Supervisor Robert Keith. If Flaming Gorge’s normal water levels are restored, the episode will likely improve traditional spawning beds, Keith said. However, if BOR withdrawals from Flaming Gorge substantially outpace natural inflows for several more years, the fishery will suffer.

“That’s going to be an economic impact to communities around the reservoir that depend on the anglers showing up,” Keith said. “And If we don’t have any ramps in Wyoming that anglers can launch from, then they’re all going to launch further down the reservoir and those dollars are going to be spent down in Utah.”

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The BOR is in consultation with the Wyoming State Engineer’s office and local recreation and fishery managers regarding drawdowns at Flaming Gorge. The Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area — managed by the U.S. Forest Service — as well as Wyoming Game and Fish, can apply for federal funds set aside to aid in the Colorado River Basin water crisis. But maintaining critical water levels at Powell and Mead remains a priority, while projects involving reconstructing boat ramps and shifting fishery management would take years.

For DuBois, who depends on both a healthy fishery at Flaming Gorge and functional boat ramps, the situation threatens his livelihood. He recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in a new fishing boat and hopes it pays off.

“How does the Bureau of Reclamation not know [the recent drawdown] would leave most boat ramps unusable?” DuBois asked.

As he continues to relocate and reconstruct boat docks to adjust to lower water levels, Valdez is considering how to expand his scope of clientele to make up for losses. 

“I didn’t buy this place to come up here and watch this go to shit,” Valdez said.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Physics beats politics every time.
    That’s how you spot the hoax.
    Does the application of basic physics match up to the scam the establishment is pushing?
    The lower basin is spoiled and unreasonable in their expectations. A divorce is inevitable. They simply lie to themselves and expect us to cooperate. The threats will be next. Newsom will go postal when he hears the word NO. Guaranteed.

    1. Rick, there has been a 20+ year drought throughout the West and Great Basin. The Sierras generally get 500+ inches of snow. A drive down Hiway 191 and deviation to Grand Junction- Lizard Head pass will show you what’s going on. The drought extends into the PNW and up into the headwaters of the Columbia River / BC glaciers. The Wind River Mountains have been very dry with a lack of deep winter snows. The drought down the Continental divide in Colorado is wide spread. The dams draw downs are part of the long term plan ; control flooding and create hydro electricity plus provide a water source. Fishing and recreation are a by product. As far as those that want to complain of forestry management, tell me who planned for riding temperature and evaporation rates. I have had a front seat view either working out of a hut on Mt Rainier’s glaciers and flying the entire western landscape on a USFS helitack crew. If any of this drought is just getting your attention wait for the future. A complete landscape change globally along with reductions in wildlife follows. My concerns for Wyoming is not surface water but tainted or contaminated aquifers from re injected fracking fluids that our ignorant or complicit state legislators have allowed.

  2. That’s what happens when human population dependent on a water supply exceeds carrying capacity of its habitat. Get used to it!

  3. how about shipping all water from wyoming to colorado & california ?
    that way those states can continue with their consumption unabated !

  4. “Why wasn’t this addressed 15 years ago if we knew this was coming?”

    I LAUGHED OUT LOUD at this statement! In a State that voted for Trump and denies the impact of CO2 releases, clearly he was duped by rhetoric in the media and by not conducting due diligence on his investment.

    News flash – The west is going to burn due to mismanagement of its Forest by humans for the last 100 years and we are going to run out of water. It is plain as the nose on one’s face but I get it as the average person is blasted with lies about the environment on a daily basis in Wyoming.

    As I opined on another story this statement is patently hubris, yet it is the motto of a failed belief that is etched in limestone on the University of Wyoming Engineering Building.

    “Strive On – The Control of Nature is Won Not Given.”

    I laugh out loud every time I read it…..

    PS to go along with this article I recommend listening to this interview as it appears leaky Powell should be sacrificed to maintain Mead and the upper reservoirs. The Wyoming Federal delegation and the State might want to advocate for killing Powell to save Wyoming’s power generation, recreational opportunities and fisheries. Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.

    https://www.npr.org/2022/09/29/1125905928/the-colorado-river-water-shortage-is-forcing-tough-choices-in-7-states

    1. Greg

      First of all those of us who are natives of Sweetwater County and know it’s history know that John Wesley Powell traveled down the Green and Colorado rivers to check out the water situation back in the late 1800’s, well over a hundred years ago. He then said that the water system in the West could ‘NEVER’ handle a large population. This (his) warning was totally ignored then and still is. So you say this problem could have been avoided 10 or 15 years ago. It could have been avoided way before that if John Powell’s words and reports had been listened to anytime since his Green & Colorado exploration trips that started in Green River, Wyoming.

      Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming have only encouraged people to come to our states. Now people are flocking to these places to get away from the problems in their own states. So the problems continue. With all the water concerns Utah is still growing in population where do they expect to get water for those people? Anyone who has visited or traveled on their highways or within their cities knows of the congestion in almost all of that state. Really! Yet they demand water. This is the same for California, Nevada, and Arizona. I have to admit I haven’t spent as much time in the other states to know if their growth problems are comparable. I have been to Lake Mead and I have seen the terrifying low levels of the shoreline.

      Local politician, Republicans and Democrats, look at the need for now and not the future, they stress that we need jobs, we need growth in our communities, so they want people coming to live in their communities while not looking at the future impact on the environment. Sweetwater County in the past as other counties in Wyoming were home to miners and railroaders with strong unions and they have been strong Democrats so the problem isn’t just one party or one leader. Look beyond your stereotyping. It’s not even the local ranchers and farmers that it seems people want to eagerly blame. They know and understand more about our environment that most folks. This water problem goes back to the beginning and is a chronic problem of ignoring what we knew in the beginning about not just Wyoming but the entire West. Wyoming, Washington Politicians Republican and Democrats, the states involved should all have known this was predicted all along to be a problem.

      What I think is sad, is that you ‘Laugh Out Loud’ when something this serious is going to have possibly deadly consequences to all people not matter what their political affiliation was or currently is.

      1. Which party thinks man made climate change is a hoax and a lie?

        I’ll give you a hint. It’s the same party that thinks chrump was cheated in the last election, believes in pedophile vampires, wants their bible to dictate law, ignores science, doesn’t want minorities to vote, chooses a grifter over country, and doesn’t believe in higher education.

        The blame you put on both parties is misplaced and a deflection.

      2. Thanks for the history but I think you missed that I did not articulate the 15 year statement, the owner of the marina did.

        Limits to growth was produced in 1972 when I was 9 and I took it to heart, too bad too few took it seriously. Now the evidence is everywhere, but our rhetoric does not reflect it. The proudest monkey believes technology will save us and we, as a society, have let those voices become our leaders, much to my dismay. As cheap energy goes away all we are left with is a too large of population on a finite planet.

        We are destroying ourselves one way or another but I am advocating to fight it out to the last person instead of letting nuclear weapons provide the easy way out.

        Society needs more practice and less success. At this point there is only one party advocating for this policy as well as the idea to protect 30% of the Earth as wild and they are called Democrats.

    2. “Why wasn’t this addressed 15 years ago if we knew this was coming?”

      Wait until he finds out we still arent doing anything about it now.

  5. Well I think our politicians have sold all of us down the drain yet again my uncle worked on many of those damns and said they were at a high level in those days it would drop much farther than they said it would he’s seen it at ten times as low of levels as it is now. So here ya have it. Give it time it will change and let’s all stop our politicians from over salingour rights our water and our futures. Time we make our republic work as it should a cooperative that cuts the politics and bessinesmen out of our personnel lives.

    1. are you aware that the reservoir levels are all public info? All of the major reservoirs are at their historic lows since being filled.

  6. One thing you can do to stop the algae blooms and improve water quality is to install airation system. Several floating solar systems out there. You as marina owner made money off the water. Time to put money back into it.