Officials seek support for maintaining lake levels

North Big Horn County citizens, especially recreationists and boating enthusiasts, are being asked to let their feelings be known about future management of Big Horn Lake.

07-14-11_X5N1086-Day-at-the-lakeCounty commissioners Keith Grant and John Hyde, along with Friends of Bighorn Lake President Steve Keil, said this week that it is imperative that local folks stand up for maintaining a lake level in light of a decision by the federal Bureau of Reclamation to take comments through Jan. 16 on the possible revising of the agency’s operating criteria for the Yellowtail Dam and water releases into the Big Horn River.

The future management issue raised its head at the Nov. 13 Big Horn River System Issues Group meeting in Billings.

Since the Friends of Bighorn Lake group was formed in 2006, bringing some political clout to the lake level issue, the Bureau of Reclamation has done a good job managing the lake, Keil said.

“There are a lot of entities they have to satisfy,” he said. “It’s a balancing act. In my opinion, they’ve done a pretty good job of satisfying all of the groups involved. There’s been better water than we’ve had in the past. In the bad old days the downstream users got all of the water they wanted.”

“The lake was managed for the river fishery (below the dam) until 2006,” Grant agreed.

“There have been definite changes in their philosophy and management style with Keith’s help and that of our political representation and the county commissioners,” Keil said.

Grant explained that since 2008 the Bureau has managed the lake via a rule curve, a method introduced by the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to anticipate available water and balance interests above and below the dam.

“It’s not going to work great for everyone all of the time,” Grant said. “It didn’t work great for them or for us this year the way the season was. We didn’t have enough water by Memorial Day, and they had too much at times.”

In anticipation of high runoff, the Bureau cut back the water release during the spring, which didn’t allow the lake to fill and boats to be launched at Horseshoe Bend until well into June, but then the runoff picked up and the release had to be drastically increased again. The see-saw of water releases didn’t please either the Big Horn Lake users or the downstream fishery users.

The result was an issues group meeting Nov. 13 that was more intense than most meetings have been over the years.

“It’s becoming more contentious,” Keil said. “They want a very specific flow to accommodate their recruitment (fish hatch) in the spring and the fall – a big flow to fill their side channels and to maintain the flow until the hatch is completed and the fish are out of the spawning grounds.

“For all practical purposes it will draw the lake down. We’ll lose our recreation and our fishing on our end.”

“They want to go back to the old system,” Grant added.

Added Hyde, a former Wyoming Game and Fish warden, “Their (state) fisheries people don’t manage by objective, they just want more. They’ve got the second best rainbow trout fishery in the state of Montana, yet they’re complaining it’s not good enough.”

Hyde noted that the fisheries advocates claim that the river was not at optimum flows for 28 months over the past five years, but the lake was below its optimum level for 25 months, which is an elevation of 3,630 feet to accommodate fishing through the narrows.

Grant said the Bureau has a memorandum of understanding with the National Park Service to maintain a minimum lake level of 3,620 feet, a standard level of 3,630 and an optimum level of 3,640, and the MOU states that the lake level should never be below 3,620 feet by Memorial Day so that boats can be launched.

The wet year of 2011 complicated matters, the officials agreed, because it brought the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into the picture. A combination of a heavy snowpack and a wet spring and summer pushed the lake level well into the flood control pool, which also affected the Missouri River downstream.

“They (the Army Corps) go by the letter of the law, to not violate the exclusive flood pool, and they take over control when the lake gets above 3,640,” Grant said.

“I’d like to see another five feet of the flood pool for joint use, but they’ve made it clear that’s not going to happen,” Keil said.

“We need to keep asking because of the silt,” Grant said.

Keil said the lake has lost 15 to 20 feet of its capacity overall because of sedimentation over the years, and Grant noted that there is about 54 feet of silt at Horseshoe Bend.

Sedimentation must be addressed, the officials stressed, or “we’re going to lose this end of the lake within 20 to 25 years,” Keil said, adding, “It’s been talked about for several years but the issue lost a lot of leadership when (the BOR’s) Lenny Duberstein retired.

Ideas range from constructing sedimentation ponds to dredging, the officials said.

Comments needed

The commissioners, Keil and Rep. Elaine Harvey are asking for public comment about the lake management. Grant said talking points include insisting on certain lake levels to meet Wyoming’s recreation and fishing requirements including a lake level of 3,620 or higher by Memorial Day, lake levels reaching 3,640 for recreation by July and maintaining lake levels at 3,635 to 3,640 through the end of November to support the national waterfowl flyway. The absolute lake minimum should be 3,617, Grant said.

Comments may be made to the Bureau of Reclamation by following the link http://www.usbr.gov/gp/mtao/yellowtail/operating_criteria.html on the Internet. Comment forms, complete with talking points, are also available at the Lovell Chronicle and at the Lovell Area Chamber of Commerce office.

“The downstream people have Trout Unlimited and the Friends of the Bighorn River,” Keil said. “They have a lot of people contributing.”

“The fisheries people want to come off the rule curve (method of lake management),” Hyde said. “It hurt us this year, too, and it’s not perfect, but it works the best.”

For more information, contact Keil at 548-7785.

By David Peck