Snake River water issues

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Rick Smith

Sep 21, 2023, 8:45:49 AM9/21/23
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Jackson Hole (WY) News & Guide

Wednesday, September 20, 2023




Can buying water save salmon — and trout — in Snake?

River advocate calls for more water rights, using existing tools, as Park Service mulls water buy.




As the river community has tangled with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over managing Jackson Lake Dam, advocates have tossed around an idea: buying water rights from Idaho farmers to manage the Snake River better for the benefit of natural resources, such as the native cutthroat trout that call the Snake’s bends home.

Federal officials are thinking similarly.

“We have to look at and figure out how we’re going to purchase our own water rights,” said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams, visiting Grand Teton National Park in August. “We’re going to have to go back and probably ask Congress for appropriations for that when the time comes.”

For years, anglers, floaters, farmers, fisheries managers and federal officials have fought over how to manage the water that flows from Jackson Lake Dam into the Snake River in western Wyoming. Idaho “spaceholders,” as water owners are known in the water world, own 96% of the water in the Upper Snake River Basin, the network of dams and reservoirs that stretches from Jackson Lake to Milner Dam near Twin Falls, Idaho. Most of that water irrigates crops in the Gem State’s eastern and southern farmland. Wyoming “spaceholders” own only 4% of the water in the basin. So when push comes to shove, as it did this spring in a controversy over flows from Jackson Lake Dam, watchdogs often call for Wyoming interests to buy more water.


On Thursday the Bureau of Reclamation once again visited Jackson, part of the federal agency’s pledge to communicate better with the public in Teton County about how water is managed, a pledge that came after the spring conflict and recent fall drawdowns that caused an uproar. The meeting provided a high-level overview, and bureau officials focused on explaining how the Upper Snake River Basin works. But the questions attendees asked raised another key question: Is buying more water appropriate? Or do we already have the tools we need to manage water better?

“I think every tool should be on the table for consideration, including purchasing water rights,” said Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies regional director for American Rivers, who for decades has kept a close eye on management of the Snake. “But I also believe that we have existing laws and guidelines in place that should prioritize restoring natural flows to the Snake River through Grand Teton.”

The backstory

Until this spring the largest source of tension between the bureau and Teton County was rapid reductions in flows from Jackson Lake Dam in the fall. While the bureau has said the rapid drawdowns are necessary to meet maintenance targets and irrigation needs while also reducing flows to winter levels, fishermen and fisheries managers worry the quick cuts will strand fish in side channels disconnected from the main stem of the Snake River. The National Park Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other scientists are trying to better understand how that works.

But in May a new conflict flared.

The bureau told the State of Wyoming and Grand Teton that it was considering cutting flows from Jackson Lake Dam to 50 cubic feet per second, less than a sixth of the 280 cfs flow that Game and Fish says is the “absolute minimum” necessary to sustain fish and other aquatic wildlife and keep water flowing through the iconic Oxbow Bend. With dams downstream nearing flood stage after a stout winter, the bureau didn’t want to have to release water past Milner Dam, after which point it’s no longer available to the farmers who own it. The bureau told Wyoming the state was on the hook for maintaining the minimum flows.

But Wyoming didn’t have enough water in its storage account to make up the difference.

In the 1980s, John Turner, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state senator and river outfitter from Moose, persuaded the Wyoming Legislature to buy the state’s existing 33,000 acre-feet of water rights in Palisades Reservoir. The water can be moved from Jackson Lake and primarily supplements autumn and winter flows below the dam.

This spring, after intervention from the Department of the Interior — which oversees the Park Service and Reclamation — the bureau changed course, saying it would foot the bill if water had to be rented from Idaho farmers. Flows stayed at 280 cfs until about mid-July, when they were bumped to 2,300 cfs. Still, Reclamation spilled 3,000 cfs from Milner Dam for 24 consecutive days in June and July.

That confused onlookers like Bosse. The water was destined for salmon downstream. Bosse wondered why couldn’t it help trout on its way.

Water for salmon — and trout?

The bureau is required to release about 427,000 acre-feet of water annually — roughly the equivalent of half the capacity of the Jackson Lake reservoir — to benefit endangered salmon and steelhead that live in the Snake downstream of Hell’s Canyon Dam. In 2022 the bureau missed that target for the first time. Of that sum, 150,000 acre-feet must come from the upper Snake above Milner.

“We need to look at ways where we can time the release of that water from places like Jackson Lake so you can get a benefit for resident fish as well as anadromous fish, like salmon and steelhead,” Bosse said. Anadromous fish hatch in freshwater, migrate to the ocean and back to freshwater to spawn and, usually, die.

On Thursday bureau officials said that could be difficult because of how the flow augmentation for salmon has to happen. Attempting to set guidelines in the midst of a long-running court battle over endangered salmon, a 2008 biological opinion says that water released for the migratory salmon “must be water that would otherwise not be there.” Releases intended to prevent flooding don’t count. And the bureau “must be able to clearly report on the volumes and timing” of the releases, which must occur between April 1 and Aug. 30.

In other words, the bureau needs to go above and beyond what it would do otherwise to benefit fish downstream. Typically, Reclamation finds the necessary water by renting it from farmers or power companies that operate dams along the Snake. Those with the water rights are paid for every drop.

Peter Cooper, a Boise, Idaho-based regional manager for the bureau, suggested Thursday that lining up the timing of releases for salmon downstream and trout upstream is possible.

“At times there is flexibility,” Cooper said.

But this year Palisades and American Falls reservoirs were too full, he said. Releasing water from Jackson Lake Dam, upstream of the two impoundments, could have required the bureau to release water from either dam to keep them from overfilling. That would have violated the second tenet of salmon flow augmentation: Flood releases don’t count.

If American Falls and Palisades had been lower, there would have been “more flexibility in the system to move water around,” Cooper said. “But it was a unique situation where the lower system was very full. Any additional water coming out of that upper system into that lower system would have caused it to spill.”

Bosse, however, wants to see the “flexibility” Cooper mentioned put into action. “While it may be difficult, it has to be on the table,” Bosse said.

What about buying water?

On Thursday, Paul Bruun, a longtime News&Guide columnist and Jackson Hole fisherman, berated the bureau for scheduling a sharp drawdown again this fall — “Everybody’s been very nice so far, but I’m not nice,” he said — because of construction timelines. Bruun wanted to know why it’s so difficult to extend the drawdown, giving fish more time to reach the Snake’s main stem.

“Every year it’s the same story. Every year this river goes down, like overalls at quitting time,” Bruun said. “And it’s not great for our habitat.”

But another attendee, who the News&Guide couldn’t identify, bit back.

“Can I answer his question?” the man said. “Why don’t you buy the water from the farmer? Call the Group of Nine in Idaho” — the nine Idaho watermasters who oversee Snake River irrigation projects — “and say, ‘Hey, we’ll pay you to release the water differently.’ Because that’s what’s causing that whole thing.”

One of those watermasters, Tony Olenichak of Water District 1 in Idaho Falls, was at the meeting Thursday. Olenichak is in charge of distributing water that Idaho irrigators own in the Upper Snake and oversees 359 canal or pump diversions. He said there are two ways of acquiring water rights.

One method is buying unallocated water, which would give the buyer junior water rights, meaning everybody who purchased water rights before the buyer would get water first. In low-water years a new buyer might not get anything. The other method is buying senior water rights from an existing water rights owner.

That, Olenichak said, would be very difficult.

“Irrigated ground is worthless, usually, if you stop irrigating,” Olenichak said. “Unless you develop it.”

n Jackson Hole, Olenichak said, developed land is worth a lot more than agricultural land.

Olenichak said he didn’t know what Wyoming had done with the 4% its spaceholders own in the Upper Snake River Basin. But, he said, farmland along the Snake River in Wyoming has been developed.

“Now it’s all houses,” Olenichak said. “What happened to those water rights?”

Where does Grand Teton fall?

Grand Teton Superintendent Chip Jenkins said the Park Service isn’t actively asking for a congressional appropriation to buy water rights. But it would consider doing so.

Jenkins told the News&Guide that before asking for money, Park Service officials want more information about how drawdowns impact fish and other aquatic life, questions that Grand Teton, Game and Fish and other scientists are seeking this fall — and again next summer — in a series of studies with professors from across the Rocky Mountains.

“The entire watershed is a very, very significant resource,” Jenkins said. “It’s important ecologically, it’s important recreationally, it’s important economically, and it’s important spiritually.”

Jenkins said the first questions that need to be answered are: Is there a need to secure more water for instream flows? And how much water might be needed, and when?

Once those questions are answered — and if the answer is in the affirmative — Jenkins said government officials and nonprofits will need to figure out how to secure that water, and who should do it. Money could be set aside to buy water rights via private philanthropy, or congressional or state appropriations, Jenkins said.

Jenkins said the park wants to ensure that instream flows support aquatic species and vegetation and that the Snake’s springtime flows mimic spring runoff so the river benefits from a close-to-natural cycle. On top of that, Grand Teton would like to see sufficient flows for summertime recreation, Jenkins said.

“We recognize there are legal and contractual commitments that have to be met to water users. We support that,” Jenkins said. “We also believe that the collection of people that are involved with this are smart enough that, in the process of doing that, we can also meet the needs for ecosystem processes and recreation.

“While it may be difficult, it has to be on the table,” he said.



Rick Smith

5264 N. Fort Yuma Trail

Tucson, AZ 85750




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