Snake River Granted Last-Minute Reprieve from Flow Reduction

Agencies reach agreement to maintain flows at Jackson Lake Dam

Through an agreement between the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Bureau of Reclamation, the flow of the upper Snake River will be maintained at a minimum of 280 cubic feet per second (cfs) — the minimum amount to keep the fishery and aquatic ecosystem healthy. (Wyoming Truth photo by Melissa Thomasma)

By Melissa Thomasma

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Bureau of Reclamation have reached an agreement to maintain the flow of the upper Snake River at a minimum of 280 cubic feet per second (cfs) — the minimum amount to keep the fishery and aquatic ecosystem healthy. 

“Wyoming is committed to using its water storage allocation, up to a maximum of 33,000-acre feet,” according to a joint statement released Tuesday. “If necessary, Reclamation has committed to covering any shortfalls should they occur.” 

Due to atypical snowpack conditions and downstream reservoirs that are at or near capacity, the Bureau of Reclamation announced on May 5 that the dam flow would be reduced to 50 cfs: a trickle less than one-fifth of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s established minimum for the fishery. 

In the face of intense backlash from NGOs, river advocates and other agencies, negotiations led to a partial solution before the reduction was to have gone into effect on May 10. The initial agreement, which included the State of Wyoming utilizing all of its water rights to keep the flows up, would have covered most of the six to eight-week drawdown, but not all of it. Up to 10 days remained in question.

The final agreement prevents the 10-day gap; if Wyoming’s rights run out and a gap remains, the state will rent water rights from Idaho to maintain flows at 280 cfs. 

“The wild and scenic Snake River in Grand Teton National Park provides stunning views, world-class fishing and recreational opportunities and excellent wildlife viewing,” Chip Jenkins, Grand Teton National Park Superintendent, said in the statement. “We appreciate the State of Wyoming and the Bureau of Reclamation’s joint efforts to ensure minimum flows from Jackson Lake Dam to protect these resources and experiences.”

“Managing water in the West in light of changing hydrology requires adapting to dynamic water conditions,” Jennifer Carrington, Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director, noted in the statement. “We appreciate our partners and remain committed to working with them on collaborative solutions as we attempt to balance the water needs of interests upstream and down.”

Questions linger on the path ahead

A group of nonprofit organizations, including the Jackson Hole chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Snake River Fund, professional fishing and wildlife guides and individuals led a public outcry about the initial plan to reduce water flows. They expressed their concern in a flurry of feedback to state and federal agencies, as well as social media posts and letters to editors.

Taylor Phillips, owner of Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, spearheaded a petition with over 2,300 signatures to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland that pleaded for a more even-keeled management strategy year-round. 

“We are not only concerned about today,” Phillips wrote in an updated letter shared on the petition. “Without long-term, ecologically sound water management on the Upper Snake River focused on protecting our natural resources, economy and unique array of wildlife, we are concerned we will find ourselves fighting this same battle every year.”

Phillips is grateful for the collaborative work among agencies. “I think it’s incredible, and I really applaud state, national park service leaders and folks within the Department of the Interior for their hard work negotiating a management plan,” Phillips told the Wyoming Truth.

Still, Phillips remains concerned for the future. “I recommend that citizens connect with regional NGOs that have a stake and work in the river stewardship and conservation space,” he said, adding that public support of these organizations will help ensure the stable and predictable future of the Snake River.

Officials at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department agreed. “This stretch of river is iconic and a national treasure. I appreciate the Bureau of Reclamation’s efforts to work with us to find solutions to address our concerns,” Brian Nesvik, Wyoming Game and Fish Director, said in the agencies’ joint statement. “We look forward to working together to examine water operations and ensure water flows are maintained year-long.”

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