Bureau of Reclamation says they are confident in safely managing spring runoff
Agency hopes to store sufficient water and minimize risk of flooding
As rain and rising temperatures begin to melt the record-breaking snowpack in the Uinta and Wasatch Mountains, operators of the area’s dams and reservoirs say they are prepared to safely manage the spring runoff.
After water breached an emergency spillway at Lake Orville in California in February causing large-scale evacuations, Summit County Emergency Manager Chris Crowley said he wondered about the county’s safety and reached out to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates more than 300 reservoirs and 50 hydroelectric plants in the Western United States.
“We all have to be concerned about rain, flooding, fast rising water and, of course, the safety of our dams,” Crowley said. “We certainly have our share of floods or potential for them. While we don’t have any right now, I have to be proactive and make sure that we are in communication with all of the agencies that manage our resources or have the capability of responding and keeping our community safe.”
The Provo Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Upper Colorado Basin, manages 25 dams, including Echo, East Canyon, Moon Lake, Upper Stillwater and Rockport, and two power plants.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, most of the reservoirs located in the Wasatch Front and Uinta River Basins are already measuring more than 50 percent full. The reclamation website shows the snowpack in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains is still measuring more than 150 percent of normal.
“This is a year that has nothing average about it and that causes us concerns because all of that water has to come down at some point,” said Wayne Pullan, Provo Office manager.
Pullan said the snowpack historically gradually builds until around the end of April before it starts to melt, typically tapering off around early July. However, he said early warm temperatures brought a significant portion of the snowpack down in early March.
“But then it started to rain again so we have actually seen it build back up at the upper elevations,” Pullan said. “This will be one of those years we talk about in the future. It’s been a big water year and an anomaly.”
When managing the spring runoff, Pullan said the Bureau of Reclamation has two objectives: to store as much water as possible and bring down the snowpack with minimal damage and risk for flooding.
“Those are the objectives, but there are multiple variables that we have to factor in, such as how much water is up there in the snowpack and how much capacity we have to store that water in our reservoirs,” Pullan said. “We have to balance all of those variables, while doing our best to store as much water as we can and pass the runoff with minimal amount of trouble.
“To do that, you have to be hypervigilant in making sure what is coming next and making sure our facilities are operating in a safe manner,” he said.
Annual reviews are completed at each facility, in addition to more comprehensive examinations every eight years, Pullan said. He added, “As time goes by, engineering gets better and we better understand the risks.” Most of the state’s dams were built between the 1930s and 1960s.
Less than five years ago, a large berm was installed and the spillway was reconstructed at Echo Reservoir to meet current and seismic standards, Pullan said. More than a dozen similar projects have also been completed on other dams in the last several years.
The Bureau of Reclamation, along with the help of local emergency management personnel and law enforcement officials, has created emergency action plans for each of the facilities it manages. If flows are expected to exceed the safe channel capacity or other issues are anticipated, residents in low-lying areas would be alerted, Pullan said.
While Pullan acknowledged localized flooding could take place, he said the more immediate threat is fast-flowing water in rivers and streams.
“Another way this year is going to be a record setter is because we have higher flows in most of the streams earlier than we ever have before,” Pullan said. “People who recreate around rivers and streams need to exercise an extra amount of caution. Right now they run faster quicker than at other times of the year. That stream that was a great to play in the fall could become deadly.”
For more information about water operations and current hydrology conditions, go to https://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/index.html.
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