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Jackson Lake at historic low levels this summer to meet demands in Snake River system 

Visitors launch a motor boat at one of Jackson Lake's boat ramps.
C. Adams
Visitors launch a motor boat at one of Jackson Lake's boat ramps.

Jackson Lake will see historically low water levels this summer, according to an announcement from federal water managers.

Nearly all of the reserve water stored in the lake will be released into the Snake River to meet the downstream irrigation needs in Idaho. Legally, Wyoming only has rights to four percent of water in the Snake River system.

The entire Snake River Basin remains in a drought. Jackson Lake was at historic low levels last year, as well. Carlin Gerard, the executive director of the Teton Conservation District, said the years of drought are compounding.

“I think it's a really good time to be talking about water efficiency, water savings, with the idea that we don't know what next year is going to bring,” he said.

By late September, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) estimates Jackson Lake reservoir will be drained two to 10 percent of capacity. The levels of the lake are managed through the Jackson Lake Dam by the USBR, but snowpack still plays a role.

“Snowpack in the Upper Snake River feeds into Jackson Lake,” Erin Whorton, the water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said. “It ended up being 83 percent of normal for the peak snowpack. So even though we have this cold, wet spring, and that's been helping make up for the overall low snowpack during the winter, it's still not enough to probably fill Jackson Lake Reservoir this coming spring.”

Both Signal Mountain Lodge’s boat ramp and Leeks Marina in Grand Teton National Park will be out of the water by early September. One other boat ramp will not be in the water at all.

“Unfortunately the low lake levels have forced us to make the decision to close the Colter Bay Marina for the season,” said Amy Allen, the director of sales and marketing for Grand Teton Lodge Company and Flag Ranch Company.

The marina had to close early last year due to low water levels, Allen said.

Teton Conservation District’s Carlin Gerard said there are a lot of local stakeholders who are affected by the water being released from Jackson Lake, including the agriculture community, electrical companies, wildlife conservation groups and recreationalists.

“From a recreational standpoint, there's quite a bit of interest in preserving higher flows for longer periods of time. Like, more of a flood pulse for whitewater and longer season flows in the fall to allow better rafting opportunities on the Snake,” Gerard said. “But I've also heard an interest in being willing to make some sacrifices for the benefit of the natural resources in the fishery from that community as well.”

Last year, there was some outcry from the fishing community that the USBR’s water release from the reservoir was too erratic. The summer had higher flows of up to 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), and dropped to 280 cfs rapidly in the fall.

“There definitely was concern with dropping the flows that fast,” Clark Johnson, the Jackson region fisheries biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish, said. “Because we know side channels will start isolating and drying up and potentially stranding fish.”

However, this year the USBR plans to keep the water release more steady. Over Memorial weekend the system will hit its peak flow of 3,500 cfs and level out in a week to an average of 2,000 cfs, which the USBR said will remain consistent through the early fall. Johnson said he does not foresee major impacts to the fisheries this year.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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