Flaming Gorge falls as drought felt higher up Colorado River
A boating and fishing paradise on the Utah-Wyoming line is beginning to feel the effects of the two-decade megadrought gripping the southwestern U.S. Until now, Flaming Gorge Reservoir hasn't seen anything like the low water that has drastically shrunk Lake Mead near Las Vegas and Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah.
FLAMING GORGE RESERVOIR, Wyo. – Tony Valdez wasn't worried about being left high and dry when he bought Buckboard Marina three years ago, but that's changed with the receding waters of Flaming Gorge Reservoir.
This year, he has already dredged 10 feet (3 meters) so boats could still use the marina. Now, with Flaming Gorge becoming a crucial emergency water supply for the region, Valdez worries the reservoir has nowhere to go but lower still.
“I mean, this is our natural resource and it’s going away,” he said. “Water is the most precious thing we have.”
As a 20-year drought creeps ever farther up the Colorado River Basin and seven Western states vie for their fair share of water under the century-old Colorado River Compact, this boating and fishing paradise on the Wyoming-Utah line is a new flashpoint.
Nobody disputes the root of the problem: The agreement dates to a cooler, wetter time and is based on assumptions about precipitation that simply no longer apply, in part due to climate change.
But as business owners like Valdez are finding out firsthand, recreation is just one of many competing priorities while growing demand in the basin's more populous downstream states — California, Nevada and Arizona — conflicts with dwindling supply from the more rural states upstream — Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River as the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact approaches. The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore the pressures on the river in 2022.
Amid jostling by farmers, ranchers, businesses, industries, municipalities and government officials, it's anyone's guess who will come out ahead or get left behind — including natural ecosystems that need water, too.
“It’s a complicated mess. And right now the environment is akin to a snake den because everybody is just out for themselves,” said Kyle Roerink, director of the Great Basin Water Network conservation group.
In August, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton agreed for now to let Upper Basin states keep working together on drought plans that emphasize voluntary water conservation rather than have the bureau dictate reservoir releases.
That's a decision welcomed by Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart, the state's chief water regulator. “Reclamation reinforced a position that Wyoming has long agreed with,” Gebhart said. “The solution to our challenges relies on the bedrock of a century of collaboration and partnership.”
Gebhart acknowledged, though, that continued drought could lead to an even lower Flaming Gorge, with the next decision about any new drawdowns due in April.
Fed by the Green River and rimmed by spectacular cliffs and scrubby desert, Flaming Gorge is by far the biggest reservoir in the Upper Basin, which refers to the vast area covering all waters upstream of Lees Ferry on the Colorado River in northern Arizona.
Built in the 1960s to store and control water in the Green River, which flows into the Colorado in southeastern Utah, Flaming Gorge is the Colorado River system's third-biggest reservoir. It's now about 75% full, compared to just 25% or so in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the bigger reservoirs downstream.
Snaking over 66 square miles (170 square kilometers) south of Green River, Wyoming, Flaming Gorge remains a renowned spot to catch giant lake trout or take a boat to a secluded cove for a dip in cool, aquamarine waters.
Just be careful about jumping in at places that were deeper a few years ago