Last Thursday’s Big Horn River System Issues Group meeting in Lovell was fairly routine but did contain one surprising announcement: Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Supt. Jerry Case said he is retiring this summer.
Case announced his retirement plan during his report about the activities of Bighorn Canyon NRA.
Case said his wife has taken a job with the U.S. State Dept. and will be taking a job at the embassy in Togo.
“She leaves in the middle of the summer, so I will be retiring,” Case said. “This will be my last (water issues) meeting.”
Case has been the superintendent of Bighorn Canyon NRA since October of 2008 and has 39 years in the National Park Service. He also oversees the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
As for his report, Case said the planned summer activities are not so much a matter of “what we are doing but rather what we are not doing” due to the federal budget sequester.
“We are not hiring a couple of seasonal maintenance workers, one seasonal lifeguard and two seasonal interpreters who staffed our ranger/contact stations,” Case said, noting that the Crooked Creek contact station at the turn into Horseshoe Bend will not be staffed this summer, as well as the Afterbay contact station at the north end of the park.
Both of the main visitor centers in Lovell and at Yellowtail Dam will remain open, he said.
There will also be a delay in hiring for four permanent positions in maintenance, interpretation, resources and protection (law enforcement), Case said.
While the recreation area has normally had special projects planned for the summer, there are none this year funded by the National Park Service, but there are three projects funded by the Wyoming Game and Fish Dept.: a log boom at Horseshoe Bend, a new vault toilet at Jim Creek and an extension of the North Kane launch ramp.
There are also plans to change the location of the dock at Medicine Creek so that it can be used during times of lower and higher water than the current location allows.
Bob Croft of the Friends of Bighorn Lake reported that planning for the upcoming sediment control project was delayed a bit when Lenny Duberstein of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Montana Area Office was sent away for a special assignment, but he said the Bureau has been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other parties such as the Park Service and the Friends to finalize the project.
Croft said the Corps of Engineers began a study in 2009 to determine the feasibility of managing sediment in the Big Horn River system from Boysen Reservoir to Big Horn Lake, developing a computerized sediment model with six options. In the meantime the Corps asked the issues group to form a subcommittee to examine the study’s results and options and “pick what we thought was the most productive way to proceed from finances to ecology to the ultimate life of the reservoir,” Croft said. Case chaired the subcommittee, which was composed of issues group members and officials from agencies with some expertise in sedimentation.
The subcommittee was formed in 2011 and met for a year and a half, performing an on-site tour and working through the Corps study. In 2012 a final on-site tour was held, after which Duberstein left for an assignment in Washington, D.C.
Based on the findings of the subcommittee, the Corps put together another report – the Big Horn Lake Sediment Management Reconnaissance Study Scope – and sent if to the Bureau last summer. It was also reviewed in the fall by the issues group, which discussed funding options to carry out the reconnaissance study, which will determine how to proceed from a two-dimensional computer model to designing the actual construction of sedimentation lagoons, a fish ladder system and a boating bypass.
“This will give us what we need to present to Congress to get funding,” he said. “It will turn out a final engineering and funding report.”
But first the reconnaissance process must be funded, and the issues group and the Bureau are working on obtaining $120,000 for that recon study from the Friends, Bureau, Park Service, Big Horn County and others, Croft said. Some of the funding can be in the form of in-kind work, he said.
“The ultimate goal of the project is to extend the functional life of the reservoir from 100 years by two or three times,” Croft said
He said the Friends of Bighorn Lake have pledged $2,000 to the effort, which is one-fifth of the organization’s annual budget, and the Friends will also help with legwork. Some agencies have also offered to fund portions of the study in house so that outside money will not have to be sought.
The Bureau’s Area Manager Brent Esplin said if various agencies can contribute to the planning, the Bureau will “attempt to fill in the gap,” noting, “There may be some funding sources we can tap into.”
The Bureau’s Clayton Jordan presented a recap of the recent spring operations report, presenting a number of charts and graphs to explain the inflows, releases and lake levels over a several-year period. The bottom line, Jordan said, is that as of this month Big Horn Lake is currently about nine feet above the Bureau’s target lake elevation, standing at nearly 3,626 when the expected elevation was 3,617 for this month due to more inflow in November and December than expected following the fall operations meeting.
Jordan wasn’t sure why the November and December gains were greater than expected but speculated that there might not have been as much ice storage as normal and that the irrigation season in the Basin lasted longer, delaying return flows until later in the fall.
But Jordan cautioned that the Bureau’s current snowmelt runoff forecast for Big Horn Lake is only 60 percent of the 30-year average at 661,000 acre feet compared to the norm of 1,098,000 acre feet.
Jordan did say that last week’s spring storm improved the snow report for Wyoming, and indeed, Monday morning’s report form the Natural Resources Conservation Service on snow water equivalent – the weight of the snow—in Wyoming’s drainage basins improved quite a bit from a statewide average of 77 percent of normal to 92 percent of normal from April 8 to April 15.
The Big Horn Basin drainage basin improved from 85 to 97 percent of average, the Wind River improved from 77 to 84 percent of average and the Shoshone River improved from 88 to 93 percent of average.
Jordan pointed out that forecasting is difficult because spring rains can make a huge difference. In 2011, for instance, the inflow for Big Horn Lake was forecast at 1.4 million acre-feet, but the lake actually received 2.57 million acre-feet due to rain. Last year the forecast was for 1,064,000 acre-feet of inflow, but the lake received 693,000 acre-feet.
“Spring precipitation is very difficult to predict,” Jordan said.
The highest year on record for inflow was 2011, he said, and the record low was 2004. Other low years were 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006.
The initial forecast was for the lake level to reach 3,635 – five feet short of full pool, but since the elevation is currently higher than the forecast, Jordan said the lake should fill by July 1.
Other agenda items at the issues group meeting included a report on the Big Horn River side channel restoration project, Montana and Wyoming fisheries reports and an update on the Crow Tribe water settlement.
By David Peck