Water supply, watershed conference, and loss of a friend and mentor

A trip to California to visit family for Thanksgiving precluded blog posts the past two weeks, so there is a lot to report this week. 

First, the trip, which I made by car on two-lane highways across eastern Oregon and northern California, reminded me of how blessed we are with abundant water resources here in the upper Snake River basin. Most of eastern Oregon is desert, and most of the streams, lakes and rivers there are very low as a result of several years of drought. Reservoirs in California are at or near record low levels; some will require several consecutive wet years to refill. Fortunately, most of California has been receiving above-average precipitation so far this autumn, and water supplies are recovering, albeit slowly. In 2014, California’s State Water Project delivered only 5% of its contracted water to users. The prediction for 2015 is 10%, and water managers hope that will increase if the current wet weather pattern continues. Even over the 10 days I spent in California, steady rain had noticeably increased flow in streams and rivers across the northern part of the state.

The warm, moist weather pattern that has brought rain to California has also brought rain to eastern Idaho. The six inches of snow that were on the ground in Ashton three weeks ago are gone, but snow has been accumulating at the highest elevations. Eastern Idaho went from setting record low temperatures in mid-November to setting record highs in early December. It is 50 degrees in Ashton right now! However, snow-water-equivalent (SWE) values across the upper Snake River basin are near average for the date. The basin SWE index for the Henry’s Fork watershed is currently at 102% of its 30-year median value, and that for the entire upper Snake basin is at 119% of median. The reservoir system started out the winter well above average, and it is filling rapidly, thanks in part to the lingering effects of heavy late-summer rains and in part to the current warm, wet weather.

Island Park Reservoir started the water year at around 70,000 acre-feet, 52% of its capacity, and above its average starting contents of 60,000 acre-feet. The reservoir has been filling steadily at around 380 acre-feet per day for over two months now. At the current rate, it will reach 127,000 acre-feet during the first week of March. This volume corresponds to a reservoir water level at the top of the concrete spillway, which is the maximum elevation that can be safely accommodated while the reservoir surface is covered with ice. Once the ice melts, the one-foot rubber dam on top of the concrete spillway can be inflated, allowing the reservoir to reach its full storage capacity of 135,000 acre-feet while also allowing the hydroelectric plant to continue operating. 

If you have been paying careful attention to Island Park Reservoir outflows, you will notice that although outflow was decreased in early October to begin the storage season, outflow was not increased on December 1, as has been our customary winter operation to benefit juvenile trout survival during the coldest part of winter. The reason for this is that the weather is actually warmer now than it was back in November, resulting in much lower need for increased winter flow than is usual for early December. This is also one reason that flows were left at around 230 cfs during November, instead of reduced to 180 cfs or 200 cfs to store a little more water leading up to the cold part of the winter. Essentially, because the weather was turned on its head this fall, the usual management was turned on its head, too, resulting in higher flows than were anticipated in November, when the weather was cold, and lower flows now, while the weather is warm. The result so far has been a constant outflow at around 230-240 cfs for the past two months—not too high and not too low. Given average snowpack accumulation, good reservoir carryover from last irrigation season, and a consistent, high inflow rate, there should be plenty of water available to increase flows later in the winter, if that is necessary. The current long-range outlooks call for a mild winter, so it is likely that flow out of Island Park will remain steady at its current rate until the reservoir reaches the top of the spillway in March. A warm, wet winter with steady streamflows will certainly benefit the fishery.

One more item regarding outflows at Island Park: you may have noticed two relatively large, but very short-lived, disruptions in Island Park flow. On November 26, a power outage caused outflow from the Island Park hydroelectric plant to drop to around 50 cfs for about 90 minutes. Apparently, a battery-powered backup system did not deploy, but power plant personnel responded quickly and long-term effects were avoided. Downstream of the Buffalo River confluence, the effect of the flow decrease was smaller—about a 45% reduction in total river flow. Two days later, an automated control system resulted in accidental opening of the dam gates across the river from the power plant, increasing flow to 1550 cfs for about 15 minutes. Again, power plant personnel responded quickly and dropped flow back to its previous value.  Fortunately, this increase occurred at 10:30 p.m., when nobody was recreating in or along the river. The exact cause and remedy to this flow incident is still under investigation. 

Northwest Power Services, the operator of the Island Park hydroelectric plant, promptly reported these flow irregularities to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and all relevant parties, including the Henry’s Fork Foundation. In turn, we responded to the report, emphasizing the need to maintain stable flows at the dam, especially during the winter, and the importance of identifying and correcting problems that led to these disruptions.

On Tuesday, December 9, the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council held its 21st annual watershed conference, attended this year by about 60 people. The theme was water management and administration after completion of the Snake River Basin Adjudication (SRBA). At an August 25, 2014 ceremony in Boise, Judge Eric Wildman signed the “final unified decree” of the SRBA, ending a 27-year process in which 160,000 water-rights claims were reviewed and adjudicated. A few outstanding claims remain to be settled, but we now effectively have a firm legal basis for managing Idaho’s supply of Snake River water into the future. The SRBA was initiated in the wake of the Swan Falls Settlement of 1984, in which Idaho Power Company and the State of Idaho reached an agreement over the minimum amount of water that is guaranteed to reach Idaho Power’s Swan Falls facility and over the particular upstream water rights that can be curtailed, if necessary, to meet this minimum flow. The SRBA is the largest water-rights adjudication ever completed and puts Idaho well ahead of other states in exerting its authority to manage its own water resources and avoid excessive and costly litigation in the future. Among the key accomplishments of the adjudication were water-rights settlements with Native American tribes and the U.S. government. Equally importantly, the completed SRBA, Swan Falls Settlement, revised State Water Plan, and updates to Idaho code provide a legal and policy framework for conjunctive administration of surface and ground water.

This year’s conference commemorated the conclusion of the SRBA and explored some of its implications for water management. Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman was the keynote speaker, and he succinctly laid out the major issues facing the department and its priorities for solving them. Following Director Spackman’s comments, speakers representing a variety of viewpoints provided thought-provoking input on issues ranging from water-supply sustainability to challenges faced by Idaho’s cities in providing water for domestic and commercial use to the potential for aquifer recharge to benefit fisheries. You may recall that I concluded a blog post a few weeks ago by asking the question of whether aquifer recharge could potentially provide a mechanism for delivering more water downstream of Island Park Dam during the winter. In his presentation, Bryce Contor, a hydrologic consultant from Idaho Falls, laid out a scenario that would do just that. Overall, I was struck by just how much agreement there was among the speakers on the key water-management issues facing us and how to solve them. We will post meeting notes on our web site soon, for those of you who want to dig into the details.

Despite good attendance at the conference, one long-time participant was notably absent. Former Idaho Water Resource Board Chair and North Fork Reservoir Company President Dave Rydalch passed away on December 3 at age 70. In the community-building circle that opened the meeting, Council co-facilitator and Fremont-Madison Irrigation District Executive Director Dale Swensen ceremonially retired Dave’s nametag, prompting others in the circle to offer their remembrances of Dave. I recalled that among many people who have helped me understand Idaho’s water resources, Dave was my first mentor. I met Dave in 1981, when I worked for Mike and Sheralee Lawson (Dave’s sister) at Henry’s Fork Anglers. As President of the North Fork Reservoir Company, Dave had the responsibility of operating and maintaining the dam on Henry’s Lake. Every time he would come up to inspect or adjust the dam, work that usually required a fishing rod, he would stop by the shop and visit. When he wasn’t talking about fishing, he was talking about water management—including aquifer recharge, which was a very novel idea back then. I didn’t know it at the time, but the things I learned from those early discussions with Dave would serve me well as I became involved in water management 15 years later. 

Dave was appointed to the Idaho Water Resource Board in 1984 and served on the Board until 1997. That was a very critical time period for water management in Idaho and especially for the Henry’s Fork. The Henry’s Fork Foundation was formed in 1984, and many of the Foundation’s early successes in protecting the river from future development occurred while Dave was on the Water Resource Board. Most importantly, the Henry’s Fork Basin Plan was passed by the Board in 1992, while Dave was Chair. The Idaho legislature approved the plan in 1993. This document has protected the river and its tributaries for over 20 years, a testament to Dave’s leadership and wisdom. The Henry’s Fork Watershed Council was also founded during Dave’s tenure as Chair, and Dave was an active participant from the very beginning. He is remembered as a real gentleman who brought people together. At the same time, he was firm in his convictions and would never concede on issues about which he felt strongly. Dave was a long-time member of HFF and its advisory committee.      

I attended Dave’s funeral earlier this week, accompanied by HFF’s Executive Director Brandon Hoffner and my friend Tom Grimes, who has worked as a fishing guide at Henry’s Fork Anglers since the early 1980s. It was a moment of great pride for me, but also of great emotion, when Dave’s sister Judy read the first few words of the life sketch that Dave had written about himself: “He was a member of the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council and the Henry’s Fork Foundation…” Dave’s friend Richard Beesley, whom I have known for many years, also mentioned the Watershed Council in his remembrance. Near the end of the service, Bishop Orme summed up Dave’s life as well as any of us could: “I don’t know if there are water resources that need to be managed where Dave is now, but if there are, I’m sure he is already at work on it. I don’t know if there is fishing there either, but if there is not, then Dave is probably not very happy.”

Dave will be missed by a large number of friends, family and colleagues, including all of us at HFF and in the Watershed Council. I certainly hope there is water and fishing where Dave is right now.