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Water wranglers: Bureau of Rec balances water needs with flood control

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – It’s a fine line to walk for the Bureau of Reclamation. Charged with managing water (and hydroelectric power) resources in the West, the agency balances difficult decisions about diversion, delivery, and storage of water.

A Buckrail follower asked why is the Palisades Reservoir so low right now? Good question, considering the snowy winter and wet spring, one would expect reservoirs to be near maxed out. And in the case of Palisades, which in recent years has suffered through very low levels of water, why are authorities not holding water back to fill it more?

Downriver of Palisades, Snake River reservoirs are near capacity—American Falls is at 95%, Ririe 93%, Island Park 97%, and Henry’s Lake 99%. Palisades Reservoir is currently at 14% capacity. Jackson Lake is 55% of capacity.

Corey Loveland (LinkedIn)

We asked the man with his hand on the spigot. Corey Loveland is the water operations manager (supervisory hydrologist) with the Bureau of Rec. Loveland said his department just finished a series of meetings about Palisades and the entire Pacific Northwest Region and Upper Snake River Basin.

They are still waiting for last-minute data for April to come in, but after flying much of the region, a rough analysis puts the estimated snowpack at 4.3 million acre feet. Sound like a lot? It is. Comparable to other big snow years like 1996 and 1986, Loveland says.

“Precipitation has been phenomenal this season. Not just snow and winter, but rain and this cold, wet spring,” Loveland said. “I understand people are seeing 14 percent in Palisades and they are a little nervous. But with the amount of snow we’ve had we have to be prepared for a rapid melt out. If we get in a situation where we are at capacity [at Palisades] we don’t want to let it out and flood people downstream.”

And that’s the delicate balance. It’s spring business as usual for the bureau but this past winter and spring have been anything but usual.

“We entered the water season in October really wet. The ground has continued to be saturated,” Loveland said. “Then we had an early melt in February where it was warm enough to melt off many low- and mid-level elevations some two to three weeks earlier than historically. Then irrigation demands usually begin in April but demand is not there yet with the cold and wet.”

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