Lake advocates explain concerns to Rep. Cheney advisor

By David Peck

North Big Horn County’s lake ambassadors last week took yet another federal official on a tour of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area to instruct her about the issues concerning the lake and recreation area.

Former Big Horn County commissioner Keith Grant, former state representative Elaine Harvey, current commissioner Bruce Jolley and local businessman Ken Grant escorted Holly Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s senior agriculture policy advisor, through the south district of Bighorn Canyon NRA by land and water Friday evening, June 4.

Keith Grant, in an interview Tuesday, said Rep. Cheney’s office staff recommended the tour for either Kennedy of Chief of Staff Kara Ahern as arrangements were being made for Cheney’s visit to Lovell on May 27.

“The office suggested we get a hold of them (Ahern and/or Kennedy) about lake issues,” Grant said, noting that Kennedy, in a May 28 email, stated, “An overview of the issues you are facing would be helpful, as well as anything you would like me to see.”

“We got in contact with her and provided information on the sediment issue and the lake level issue and invited her to come for a boat ride,” Grant said.

The group met at the visitor center at 4 p.m. Friday and drove north to Barry’s Landing, visiting the Devil’s Canyon overlook in the process and discussing issues, Grant said. They returned to Horseshoe Bend and took a boat trip north as far as Devil’s Canyon, exploring the canyon and returning to Horseshoe Bend.

“We had a good visit with her,” Grant said. “She wanted an overview of the issues we are facing, so Elaine and I worked on the most pressing issues as we felt they are.”

Grant and Harvey presented a letter to Kennedy outlining the lake issues in order of importance after introductory paragraphs spelling out the history of the recreation area and the long-sought Big Horn Canyon Parkway.

“Our most immediate need is someone from the federal government whose number one job is to negotiate an agreement with the Crow Tribe to allow completion of the Trans Park/Bad Pass road,” the letter states. “Since 2005 NPS at Bighorn Canyon has had four superintendents. I believe the longest term was two and a half years, with as much as a year with only temporary superintendents in between. None of them were interested in seeing completion of the road.

“We have met with several tribal chairmen and found all of them interested in the benefits to both the tribe and to Wyoming opportunities, but we have no authority to negotiate.”

In short, Grant said in a follow-up interview Tuesday, “We need someone with the authority and gumption and oomph to deal with the Crow Tribe and get our road built. We talked to her (Kennedy) about the superintendents we get and, at times, the lack of superintendents. It seems like we usually get older guys who are ready to retire.”

Thus, as Grant pointed out, the number one issue listed in the letter was, “We must have a qualified federal employee with the authority and desire to negotiate an agreement with the tribe.”

The number two issue is the road project itself, with the letter listing it as “Completion of the Trans Park/Bad Pass Road; it was approved by Congress and built as far north as Barry’s Landing.”

The letter continues that the right-of-way for full development of the park through the Dryhead country could be funded by the federal Land and Water Conservation Program by purchasing property originally planned for inclusion in the park.

“There is a ranch for sale in Dryhead,” the letter states. “Most of this ranch lies west of the proposed park but is much better grazing land than the property east of the proposed park boundary. It should be easy to swap properties, thereby completing the park boundaries as originally proposed. Completion of the road hinges on Crow Tribal approval.”

The third issue listed in the letter is the lake level. The local lake advocates are seeking reallocation of five feet of flood control storage, which would benefit both lake users and the Big Horn River fishermen below the dam.

“The (Army) Corps of Engineers did a study of this possibility, and as I remember (it), their biggest argument against it was (that) the 1923 flood event would have topped the Afterbay Dam by around 8,000 cfs,” the letter states. “That was before Boysen Dam was built and the Buffalo Bill Dam was raised 10 feet. The addition of capacity Buffalo Bill and the addition of Boysen added two safeguards that did not exist in 1923.

“This would make additional space for water storage, better lake levels for recreation, better reservoir fishing and better river flows for the river fishermen, and more power generation, to meet the needs of the power grid.”

Grant said the lake is considered full (top of the joint use pool) at a lake elevation of 3,640, with 17 feet of allocated flood control above that at 3,657 feet and another three feet to the crest of the dam. He said a reallocation to remove five feet from the flood pool and move it to the joint use pool would still leave plenty of elevation left in the flood pool, thanks to the Boysen and Buffalo Bill dams, and provide many benefits for recreation.

The fourth issue listed in the letter is sedimentation. The local officials are advocating for removing sediment from Horseshoe Bend.

“Yes, it will be expensive,” the letter states. “(But) tourism is Wyoming’s number two economic driver. Montana fishermen would benefit with more water storage available. Yellowtail Dam is a peaking power dam, with the Afterbay dam regulating the river flow. With wind and solar generation, peaking power is more and more important in meeting the power grid needs.”

“We’ve been lucky,” Grant said in the Tuesday interview. “We’ve had some high water years when the silt has dropped above and around the causeway.”

Grant said the Bureau of Reclamation has talked about silt dams above the causeway for several years and has performed studies on the issue, the latest update conducted in 2019. He said not very many years ago boats could launch at an elevation of 3,614 at Horseshoe Bend, and in recent years the launch elevation was 3,617.

Currently, the National Park Service is recommending a minimum launch elevation of 3,620 due to “a change in silting,” an April 17 press release stated, adding that, at that level, only non-motorized boats or shallow draft boats should launch. The Park Service recommends that larger boats not launch until the lake level reaches 3,625 feet of elevation.

But Grant said he and the other lake advocates disagree with the Park Service on the latest recommendation. He said the boat taking Kennedy on the tour Friday launched at 3,621 feet in elevation and the boat’s fish finder showed a water depth of five or six feet.

In order to address the issue, Ken Grant asked his employee Carson Hoffman, who has a state-of-the-art depth finder, to criss-cross the lake at Horseshoe Bend to perform a detailed study of the
water level, and Hoffman found from five to 10 feet of water throughout the area off the boat ramp, Keith Grant said.

“The consensus is that most boats can launch at 3,617, but we’ve always advocated a lake level of 3,620 by Memorial Day,” Grant said, adding that the lake elevation was 3,623.2 on Monday (3,623.9 Tuesday morning). That is more than sufficient elevation if boats head straight out to the main channel, he said.

“There are a lot of people at Barry’s Landing,” Grant said. “They don’t have to go to Barry’s Landing.”

According to an email submitted to the Park Service by Ken Grant on June 4, Hoffman found an average water depth of eight feet at a lake elevation of 3,621 in his survey.

“At 3,617, it’s safe to say the water depth is at least four feet deep. Only the very big boats might have a draft deeper than 48 inches with trim down,” Ken Grant wrote. “Elevation of 3,618 feet (five feet deep) should handle every boat unless  someone has some weird deep boat, but not likely. And those people will be very aware of their depth requirements.…From this data, I can’t see a reason to change the launch recommendations from the longstanding 3,617.”

Also concerning is the lake level going forward. Grant said the inflow forecast for Big Horn Lake going forward is 55 percent of average.

“For two years I’ve been a part of the technical group working on equal management (of the lake and river), and we were in pretty good shape,” Grant said. “Then the lake dropped eight feet below the agreement (for elevation). I called them and they immediately turned down the outflow.”

Grant said he fears that the lake will only reach the minimum projected elevation of around 3,620 feet from the middle of the summer onward rather than the median forecast of 3,623 to 3,625 feet as spelled out in the latest Bureau of Reclamation operations outlook.

At press time Wednesday, the lake elevation stood at 3,625.19 feet of elevation.