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Utah's shrinking reservoirs hard on fish, boaters

Published July 22, 2013 12:46 pm

Dwindling reservoir levels pose danger to boaters, fishery.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Anybody questioning Utah's status as the second driest state in the nation need look at dwindling reservoir levels for validation.

Farmers, boaters, anglers and water-use planners are all dealing with drought conditions.

As for recreation, receding water levels are making reservoirs feel even more crowded than usual, leading to the potential for more accidents. Anglers have already witnessed one fish kill at a popular destination due to low water, and state wildlife officials have increased fish limits at several reservoirs in the face of an almost guaranteed loss of the fishery as a whole, at least for the near future.

Utah State Parks officials say visitation at water-based parks is down, likely a result of the low reservoirs, but that safety education and patrols are up.

"The boating surface area is shrinking daily," said Ty Hunter, boating program manager for Utah State Parks. "The waters are getting more and more crowded, which can be dangerous. Places that may have been boatable on someone's previous trip may not be the next time."

Hunter advises all boaters to use extra caution when on the water this summer and he suggests people check the Utah State Parks website or contact the state park they plan on visiting for current boating conditions. Boat launching ramps remain open for the most part, but "it is only a matter of time" before the concrete is out of the water, Hunter said.

"Being able to launch boats affects our patrol efforts as well," Hunter said. "We have to start limiting boats we can use for patrols and for rescues. People may still be able to launch smaller watercraft and they may still need us to help them."

Reservoirs are down across the state. Among the lowest as of Sunday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, were Hyrum Reservoir, at 43 percent of capacity; Echo Reservoir, 32 percent; Lake Powell, 47 percent; Steinaker Reservoir, 34 percent; and Scofield Reservoir, 38 percent.

The north marina at Willard Bay State Park, closed since March due to the Chevron diesel fuel pipeline spill, reopened last week, but may not remain that way for long as the water level — about 61 percent — drops below the marina.

The low water at Jordanelle State Park, currently at about 60 percent of normal, forced officials of the massive Outdoor Retailer Summer Market Show to move its Open Air Demo Day on July 30 to Pineview Reservoir.

Show organizers called Jordanelle an "unsuitable venue." The Open Air Demo was staged at Jordanelle last year and exhibitors complained then about the lack of shoreline due to high water.

"It's feast or famine," Hunter said about the big change in water levels.

At Strawberry Reservoir, one of the state's most popular fisheries, about 600 fish died last week due to low-water conditions. Most of the fish were non-game suckers, but there were some trout in the count.

Drew Cushing, warm water species coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), says people can expect to see more fish kills as the summer goes on.

"Low incoming flows to reservoirs and warm water are not a good combination for fish, particularly trout," Cushing said. "There is less oxygen in warm water and we see more vegetation in warm water which also contributes to a drop in oxygen levels."

Smaller and more shallow low and mid-elevation reservoirs will most likely experience fish kills. Cushing said the Bureau of Reclamation is taking advantage of low water in some places, like Moon Lake and Piute Reservoir, to repair and improves dams.

DWR Director Greg Sheehan has already signed emergency fishing regulation changes for at least four waters, increasing the daily limit for trout to eight at Piute, Anderson Meadow Reservoir and Spirit Lake. The tiger muskie limit at Cottonwood Reservoir was increased to two fish.

Cushing said other emergency changes may be coming as the summer progresses. He points out that, while fishing and accessing reservoirs might be difficult at this time, better fishing opportunities exist in the high-elevation lakes and streams of the state.

The heavy rains so far in July haven't done much to help the declining water levels in reservoirs, but it does make the landscape around them green and lush. It also helps reduce the threat of wildfire, something else that wipes out fisheries.

Snowpack controls water levels in Utah's reservoirs and there is no replacing it when it doesn't happen.

"These summertime thunderstorms are spotty in nature. If you are underneath one you may get a lot of rain, but they are not widespread the way our snowstorms are in the winter," said Nanette Hosenfeld, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Salt Lake City.

And that may leave more fish gasping for oxygen.

"This is just the way things stack up when you live in a desert," Cushing said. "It is the price we pay for these artificial systems. You just have to plan on these kinds of years every so often."

brettp@sltrib.com

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman