From the pages of
The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 37 - 5/11/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Low water: Flow from the Fremont Dam into Pine Creek last week.
Concerns Raised About Low Water in Pine Creek
How much water is needed to sustain fish? Who's in charge of the Fremont dam?
by Jennifer Binning

State Water Engineer Loren Smith and State Water Commissioner John Dahlke have been fielding several calls from citizens concerned about the volume, or lack thereof, of water flowing down Pine Creek this spring.

Pine Creek always runs low this time of year, and in April of 1998, the flow rate for the creek below the dam averaged 29.4 CFS (cubic feet per second), never dropping below 29.0 CSF. This year, however, the flow has decreased considerably, with a rate of just 19.0 CSF last Friday.

Slow or low Runoff?

"There is plenty of snow up there," said Commissioner Dahlke in an interview last Thursday. Mr. Dahlke was referring to the snow pack still left in the high country around Pinedale as temperatures became unseasonably warm and strong winds stripped the moisture from soil for the past few weeks, a combination that worries sportsmen and ranchers alike.

Generally speaking, there are two peak flows during runoff. Mr. Dahlke explains that there is a low elevation runoff, occurring most years just about now, and a high elevation runoff that usually peaks in mid-June. As of last week, the lake had risen 3 1/2 inches since January, and several more inches in the past few days due to a combination of snowmelt and rain.

The high elevation runoff is quite consistent in terms of volume and timing, he says, but there are daily or weekly variations caused by a cool dry spring which slows the runoff, or a warm, wet spring, which causes a much faster melting of the snow pack and an early, short-lived high water season.

"We have the most consistently stable runoff in the state," said Mr. Dahlke on Tuesday. "We are really lucky here that we have a lot of runoff and a big lake to store it in." In fact, one reason the lake seems to be so low could be that for at least the past 5 years, the lake has been well over 100% capacity at the peak flow, and remains that way for several weeks.

According to data provided by Mr. Dahlke, Fremont Lake usually does not reach 100% of capacity until the middle of June, staying around 60% of capacity until the end of May. The reservoir capacity then drops back below full capacity in mid-August. "There is way more than enough water to fill the lake," says Mr. Dahlke, and "the water level is well within the range of normal."

The latest SNOTEL numbers are not that optimistic. Daryle Bennett, with the Soil Conservation Service, is predicting only a 50% chance of exceeding 82% of the average flow on Pine Creek. In his latest SNOTEL report, Mr. Bennett writes that unless the recent spate of rain continues, he expects the numbers to continue to fall. Currently, the basin-wide SNOTEL average is just 43% of average.

The Fremont Lake Dam

The flow of water through Pine Creek is directly related to the amount of water flowing through the Fremont Lake dam, however, when the Journal inquired who was in charge of running the dam, confusion reigned.

Pinedale Mayor Rose Skinner said there were guidelines in place to ensure that enough water was retained in the reservoir and also allowed to flow downstream to meet the needs of all the water rights holders, however no one really wanted the job.

Murl Morss has been in charge of the Highland Ditch headgate at the dam for years, and Ron Brown, who is in charge of the town works department, is supposed to oversee the Pine Creek spillway in order to protect the town's water rights. As residents down stream began to wonder about the fisheries habitat in Pine Creek, fingers began pointing from the Highland and Lee ditch diversions, to inattention by the town, and back again.

Water rights have always been an issue fraught with tension, especially during a year that looks like it may be a bit dry. At the mere mention of water rights, the ditch riders get defensive and the rights holders become possessive. It is not uncommon for irrigation district meetings to become platforms for heated debates on water rights. The water laws in the state are so complicated, even the legal experts advising the various entities on these laws seem to be confused.

What is needed in this case, say Messrs. Smith and Dahlke, is for those with an interest in the water in Pine Creek to form a users group and hammer out an agreement that would make most of the users reasonably happy. That way everyone along Pine Creek and the Lee and Highland Ditches would know how much water was available, who was getting it and why on any given day, with one person in charge of the flow. In times of drought or flood, the group could meet to rework the agreement to benefit the most people possible.

What About the Fish?

The town and ditch users all have established water rights based on a seniority system, however, how much water is needed to provide adequate habitat for the fish in the creek is still unknown.

Dave Belford, Fisheries Biologist for the Game and Fish, said no studies have been done on Pine Creek to establish the minimum flows needed to sustain fish habitat on the creek. Mr. Belford said he would begin the process to have the survey done.

According to Loren Smith, another problem encountered by people worried about the fishery was that although the Town of Pinedale has considerable water rights for many uses, those rights must be used where they are permitted, which is in the Fremont Lake reservoir. The Town cannot call for more water to flow downstream, because they have no water rights downstream. The only entity that is legally allowed to hold in-stream flow water rights, and thereby call for more water to be released from the dam simply to increase the flow of the river, is the State of Wyoming, which does not currently hold an in-stream flow filing on Pine Creek. To do this, the Town would have to give some of its water rights to the state, thereby losing control of those rights, an option that is not likely to happen.

Meanwhile, newly appointed by the town, "keeper of the dam" John Ross has been keeping the lines of communication open for people who are interested in the water in Pine Creek, as well as boning up on Wyoming water laws in order to be prepared should the SNOTEL predictions be borne out.

Photo credits:  Jennifer Binning

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