Water, anger rise as a result of flow test
The Bureau of Reclamation has begun a flow test experiment at Flaming Gorge Dam to assess endangered fish species in conditions designed to mimic the natural flow of the Green River downstream from the dam.
But the high-water conditions are also creating something else downstream: anger.
With flows increased to a maximum 4,600 cubic feet per second out of the dam and as high as 19,500 cfs at Jensen, Uintah County officials say farms along the Green River are being flooded, and crops are being ruined, and that their pleas to reduce the higher flows have gone unheeded.
"We think human lives and livelihoods ought to come ahead of endangered species," Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said Tuesday. "They're purposely flooding these lowlands, and it is creating huge problems for us."
McKee says farmers along the river have been forced to pull their pumps from fields along the river, and alfalfa and other crop stands are being overtaken and destroyed by the high water. He also predicts the high flows will create mosquito problems - perhaps bringing the West Nile Virus with it - and a breakout of noxious weeds.
However, Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Barry Wirth says the high flows are within the historic range of wetter years in the Uinta Basin. In 1997, 1999 and 2003, Green River flows reached 24,900, 20,600 and 19,000 cfs, respectively.
"We've seen these flows before," he said. "But after five or six years of drought, some of this becomes out of sight, out of mind."
Beyond that, Wirth added, the bureau is required to unleash the higher flows under a 1992 biological opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that calls for the monitoring and restoration of the razorback sucker, the humpback chub and the Colorado pike-minnow.
Bureau and Uintah County officials agree on this much: about 75 percent of the high water impacting area farmers is actually coming out of the Yampa River, which merges with the Green in Dinosaur National Monument. Heavy snowpack flowing into the Yampa led to the early start of the flow test last week. Yampa flows are expected to decrease in the next few days.
Fish and Wildlife officials are using the high water to analyze the rates at which razorback sucker larvae and buoyant beads - which simulate larvae - move downstream and settle into backwater habitats. The experimental flows also are supposed to measure the effectiveness of levees that provide endangered fish access to floodplain areas, and it is hoped, to move sediment downstream that has affected the Green River's trout population.
Joining Uintah county officials in their criticism of the test are environmentalists who argue that the higher flows will not create the desired backwater conditions. In addition, they say the Flaming Gorge test neglects a large, critical stretch of the Green River.
"It's a timing question," says Jon Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers. "They're trying to match the flow of the Green and the Yampa. Theoretically, it sounds like a good idea. But that leaves the upper Green below Flaming Gorge and the Yampa on different time schedules. We think the bureau should be managing that part of the river, too. Why aren't they?"
Randy Peterson, the bureau's environmental resources manager says the agency is addressing that issue, noting that the required flows are being provided "where the endangered fish are."
But Uintah County officials say the bureau's inability to reduce the flows could lead to a clash. McKee, who argues that the requirements of the flow test could be satisfied with lower water levels, says the county might go after the bureau for losses sustained by area farmers.
"There's always legal recourse, and we're considering legal recourse," he said.