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. 

This graphic indicates Colorado River reservoir levels as of November 2022. (Arizona Department of Water Resources)

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’re not naive. Even if we have a big snow year, they’re probably just gonna take all that water right back out.”

Shane DuBois, Recon Angling

“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.

New normal

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.

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)

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.”

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. Dustin,
    Your Flaming Gorge piece was excellent reading. I have been advocating solutions to the water shortage, but there’s no money in solutions, only research and administration apparently. Send me a physical address for you and I will send you a copy of my book, “The Book of Water, Volume One , Supply and Demand Concepts”. The Romans cracked that nut thousands of years ago, I think we can match their engineering prowess. I have opinions on the current “shortages”, which I think are just increased demand primarily. While agriculture uses approximately 80% of the total water supply, it’s swimming pools and lawns that are being blamed ! The Gorge is a priceless resource that should not be squandered on cotton production that will be sold to China, essentially selling our water to China ! That’s a snippet of reality as I know it. Thank you for your time and effort. Mark R. Laramie

  2. The Wyoming Water Development Office has a cloud seeding program. If the system actually works, they should increase the number of units 10x and put it to the test. One unit here and there is like adding a garden hose supply to a drainage.

  3. I liked this article, but am left to wonder where the author comes up with the current drought being instigated by “human caused climate change.” It’s not like droughts are a recent invention of mean spirited humans. According to the USDA, there was a long and sustained drought in the Intermountain West from 1200 to 1270. Long before the burning of any fossil fuels. Yet, authors like Mr. Bleizeffer throw it out there like it’s a proven fact. It might be. But then again, in another 30 years opinions might be 180 degrees different. I well recall scientists back in the 1970’s telling everyone we were heading for another “ice age.” People panicked. The current drought is no joke, and water needs to be conserved. But WyoFile should tell their authors to stick to easily identified facts. Not popular assumptions.

  4. wounder what would happen if wyoming a red state faced a water crisis ?
    you can be sure that the blue states would balk at any remedy.
    and to add insult to injury the blue states are all below elevation to wyoming.

    time for wyoming to pull out of the 1922 compact.the blues state’s will bleed wyoming dry of it’s water,leaving wyoming high & dry.

  5. I agree with William that the increase in population and western migration (and is now flowing eastern from California to mountain states) is the biggest impact.
    Just wondering what evidence do you have that the problem is “exacerbated by human-caused climate change”, other than its popular phrase? I would be interested to see your original research, not something that some said or wrote. You do have original research, right?
    During the Eocene Epoch there was no ice on earth as the poles were nearly as warm as the equator. This was not likely caused by humans.

    1. For those of you who don’t understand how easy it is to deny science, I have a book for you to read that describes how science is so easily ignored by many. The book is Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes. I hope that just one of you will at least start the book and pass the ideas on to others. Science will win. Conspiracy theories can be started and spread by anyone. Science will win in the end since it is the only information based on study and analysis. Sure there is always doubt in science and more work to be done but that does not cancel out the work of science. Conspiracy theories will eventually die. They cancel each other out and the truth stands the test of time. You can wait until disaster spreads but I would not recommend that for you or your kids.

  6. One real concern should be the lower states that are continuing to build business’s and a larger part of homes and condo’s! Utah, Arizona, New Mexico all are arid states that have always struggled to maintain enough water to provide their customers and business’s. Some real change needs to take place at the annual Colorado River Pact meeting in Las Vegas the rules need to be adjusted until the water amounts return which they won’t because of all the usage increases! Not sure why Mexico enters into this discussion but that needs to be look at as well, not sure they aren’t talking about Baja California, but they should take just as much a hit as all the other shareholders. Deeded water can also be cut back as needed and better irrigation plans and processes should be voluntarily looked into such Pivot Irrigation ie, does this type of irrigation reduce the natural aquifer levels, this and flood irrigation should all be looked at by ranchers and farmers voluntarily and not by Government , government only make thing worse! Farmers and ranchers have a better idea of what they could grow for less water and do they really need all their deeded water allotments or can they get by with less.