Lower water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which have left several boat ramps and docks high and dry, are likely the “new normal” for years to come, according to federal officials.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s most recent water-balancing adjustment under the Colorado River drought contingency plan, announced this month, maintains current plans at Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border. Those plans entail releasing an extra 500,000 acre-feet of water through April as per actions implemented in May. However, Flaming Gorge — along with two other major Upper Colorado River Basin reservoirs, Blue Mesa in Colorado and Navajo in New Mexico — remains a primary backup water source and may likely be tapped for more water, according BOR officials.
The BOR, meanwhile, will reduce releases from the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell by 523,000 acre-feet of water from December through April, then allow that same volume to flow downstream to Lake Mead during the summer months. Future adjustments will likely include siphoning more water from Flaming Gorge, according to BOR officials.
Ongoing incremental adjustments are intended to sustain hydropower generation at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams as a 22-year drought — exacerbated by human-caused climate change — continues to push the Colorado River Basin into a water scarcity crisis.
Taken all together, that means the bathtub rings of exposed shoreline at Flaming Gorge represent what is likely a “new normal” for the reservoir, Drought Response Operations program manager for the Upper Colorado Basin Region Dale Hamilton told WyoFile.
“We will continue to work with our Basin partners to consider additional releases implemented under the Upper Basin [drought contingency plan] from the upstream Colorado River Storage Project initial units, which includes Flaming Gorge,” Hamilton said.
Much depends on winter precipitation and spring runoff, Hamilton added, so any decision regarding further actions at Flaming Gorge is likely months away. “Those actions are still being discussed,” he said.
After decades of relatively steady water levels at Flaming Gorge, the reservoir is undergoing unprecedented changes as water managers release extra water in an attempt to to help balance water levels among major downstream storage reservoirs along the Colorado River.
The BOR released an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir in 2021 as part of the Colorado River drought contingency plan, dropping the surface level by about 5 feet. The current “extra” release of 500,000 acre-feet of water, combined with lower-than-average natural infill (just 57% of average from April through July) diminished the reservoir to 72% capacity in November, according to the BOR.
The reservoir has dropped by about 9 feet this year, exposing vast areas of lakebed at the upper reaches and water-ring patterns on canyon walls in some areas.
Recon Angling fishing guide Shane DuBois tried his luck ice-fishing Monday in 7 feet of water where, normally, the water depth should be nearly 40 feet, he said.
“A lot of [fishermen] have been fishing different spots for burbot,” DuBois told WyoFile. “I think [lower water levels are] going to start messing up everything, especially with all the sediment that’s pushed up on the rocks where [fish] usually spawn. It’s not going to be conducive for successful spawning for, really, any fish.”
Recreational access is becoming increasingly difficult, as water recedes from boat ramps. The ramp at the Anvil boat launch area on the west side of the reservoir in Wyoming was closed recently, DuBois said, while the Buckboard Marina in Wyoming continues to try to keep boat docks in the water.
“We’re not naive,” DuBois said. “Even if we have a big-snow year, they’re probably just gonna take all that water right back out.”