Thinking About "The New Normal"

On Saturday, May 21st, Mike Lawson of Henry's Fork Anglers posted a well written blog about the changing conditions we're seeing on the Henry's Fork, or what may be "the new normal."  These changes are undoubtedly bringing new challenges for anglers and water managers alike. Mike's blog was posted on Facebook and got some comments and questions. Rob Van Kirk, HFF's Senior Scientist also wrote a comment in response to some of those comments and questions. You can find Mike's original blog, a link to the Henry's Fork Anglers Facebook page where those comments can be found, and Rob's response below.


"The New Normal" blog post by Mike Lawson, May 21, 2016 ---


Henry's Fork Anglers Facebook Page --


Rob Van Kirk's Response --

This comment comes from Rob Van Kirk, Senior Scientist at the Henry’s Fork Foundation (HFF). We have been posting blogs for the past two years about drought, low snowpack, early runoff, and the increasingly complex challenges of maintaining fisheries on the Henry’s Fork. You can read those at However, our blogs are usually very technical, with lots of graphs and numbers. Mike put the issues in terms much more relevant to anglers and said it more succinctly than I can. Mike, thank you very much for the excellent piece. I just want to comment on three issues in the blog and subsequent comments.


First, regarding the Chester turbine test, HFF was intimately involved in both last summer’s and this week’s tests. In both cases, Fall River Rural Electric (FRRE) listened to our concerns and conducted the tests away from the early-June to early-July period in which most of the popular hatches occur between Island Park Dam and Pinehaven. When FRRE first consulted with me about timing of this spring’s test, I told them that statistically, mid-May offered the greatest chance of having the required 3500 cfs flow at Chester WITHOUT having to release additional water from Island Park Reservoir. As Mike said, in an average year, that would have happened. However, by April 10, it became apparent to me that runoff would be early, short-lived, and low. I strongly suggested to FRRE that they conduct the test as soon as possible. Unfortunately, their engineering consultants needed over a month of lead time, and it turned out that May 17-19 was the available time window. By the time I knew the exact dates, we were within a few weeks of the test, and predicting flows was extremely challenging. We had several sequences of days with temperatures in the 70s, which melted what little snow we had, raising flows dramatically for a few days, only to have them drop back to record low levels during the cold spells in between. About 10 days out, I was predicting a need to release a total of 900 cfs from Island Park Reservoir. Heavy rain a week out increased flows in Fall River, lowering my estimate to about 700 cfs—if the rain had continued. As it turned out, cool, dry weather a few days before the test resulted in very low inflow from Fall River, and the spring-fed inputs to the Henry’s Fork between Island Park and Ashton were already at record lows from the cumulative effects of three years of drought. By the time the test arrived, almost 1500 cfs was needed from Island Park Reservoir. However, our careful calculations on timing and amount allowed the test to proceed with the minimum amount of flow disruption and delivery of storage from the reservoir. And then, as luck would have it, heavy rain started on the last day of the test, and the test could have been done May 20-22 with no additional release from Island Park. In fact, if you go to you can see that the natural rise in the river at St. Anthony because of this rain looks very similar to the rise that occurred earlier in the week because of the release from Island Park. In the spring, timing is everything. This test could have been done with no additional release from Island Park over any of the time periods April 13-15, April 21-28, May 9-11, or May 20-22. So in part, we just got unlucky that May 17-19 fell in between two of the wet periods.


My second point concerns the influence and standing of fisheries interests on the Henry’s Fork and the State of Idaho. The right to use water for irrigation and other uses is guaranteed by the Idaho Constitution, not just by administrative rules and legislation. Except in extremely wet years such as 1984 or 1997, every drop of water in the Henry’s Fork (and the entire upper Snake River) is appropriated to water users under a system of water rights that dates back into the 19th century. Fremont-Madison Irrigation District (FMID) holds the rights to water stored in Island Park Reservoir. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation stores that water under its contract with FMID, but FMID can ask for delivery of that water at any time. In this case, the district requested release of water from Island Park for the purposes of the turbine test. There is much more to the water-rights aspects of this delivery than I’ll explain here, but suffice it to say that fish do not have water rights, HFF does not have water rights, and there is nothing that can legally be done to change this without actually making the situation worse for fish and wildlife. This is not a judgment over whether this is good or bad but an objective statement of the legal system we work in. Mike and the other founding members of HFF realized this, which is why they envisioned an organization that would work within the existing system, collaborate with water users, and bring science and technology to the table to obtain the best possible outcome under the given constraints.


Lastly, as one commenter pointed out, recreational fishing is economically important throughout the upper Snake River region, and economic value is one thing that gets the attention of policy-makers and local business owners. The most recent data we have on the economic value of recreational fishing is now over 10 years old. To meet the need for updated data, HFF and its agency, university and NGO partners are conducting a multi-year assessment of the economic value of fishing on the Teton River, Henry’s Lake, Henry’s Fork and South Fork Snake. We just kicked off data collection on the Teton River this weekend, will start on Henry’s Lake next weekend, and will survey the Henry’s Fork and South Fork in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Look for updates on the HFF blog as we proceed with this very important study.