Prolonged Drought Means Lower Water, Lower Expectations for Bighorn

Montana’s Bureau of Reclamation is once again having to choose between the lesser of evils as it attempts to satisfy irrigators, industry, Indian tribes, power producers and recreational interests with its releases from Yellowtail Dam this fall. It looks like the target number is far below the suggested ideal of 2,500 cubic feet per second. “At 1,750 cfs, Wyoming recreationists would be guaranteed high enough lake levels to launch boats at Horseshoe Bend year-round. But Montana recreationists would lose their brown trout spawn in the Bighorn River – again. Due to prolonged drought, there has only been one year in the past eight when side channels in the river carried water and the browns pulled off a good spawn.”
Meanwhile, this morning Wyoming politicians Keith Grant and Elaine Harvey published an opinion in the Billings Gazette labeling the call for higher water flows an “elitist rationalization.” “Does Montana want to set a precedent to allow for downstream states to take upstream water due to economics? And, is it insulting to our National Park Systems’ 300 million owners who are not able to spend $200 per day for a guided boat trip?” Those complaints sound like histrionics in the face of the real story of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area: 73 area ranches were inundated to create it, but the number of annual visitors never rose above a fraction of what planners had hoped.

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