Clyde: Until the rivers run dry
July 10, 2016
This has been a very strange year for water supply. Last ski season seemed huge, HUGE, because it actually snowed. During January, I felt like I did nothing but plow snow. I put more hours on the tractor plowing snow in January than in the previous two winters combined. And then it stopped. Overall, it was a very average snow year. The previous winters had been so lame that normal seemed overwhelming. But normal is good.
The expectation was that a normal snowpack would look something like a normal runoff when it melted, with more or less normal river flows through the summer. Well, there’s no such thing as normal. A string of 80 degree days in May melted it all off in a hurry. Reservoirs filled, or nearly filled. I don’t think anybody expected Jordanelle to reach the level it's at now. Everything look great. Except that it all melted in May, so when July comes around, the river is more or less dry.
The full reservoirs are good news for everybody downstream of them. They will have plenty of water below the dams. For those of us upstream of the dams, where we rely on the physical flow of the river, things were already looking grim by the middle of June. This week, the Upper Provo is running 120 cubic feet per second at a measuring station near my house. Average is 319 for this time of year. So about a third of normal.
The river does strange things when it gets that low. Irrigation ditches that have been flowing fine all year stop. The bottom of the ditch is a foot above the top of the river. No amount of cussing will make it flow uphill. The river doesn’t have a nice, unified channel. Its braided into dozens of little side channels, and this time of year it becomes a challenge to figure out which one you can stack some rocks in to raise it enough that the water will go down the ditch. Sometimes you have to work on the next channel over, and then the channel next to that to shift the pathetic flow around.
The peak flow back in May was about 2,000 cubic feet, or 16 times as much water as there is now. That was not a really extreme runoff, but even an average peak flow rearranges things. When the river gets above about 1,700 cubic feet, the rocks start moving. A winters worth of fallen trees and broken branches get washed downstream. When it hits flatter ground and the flow slows, all that gets deposited, and the river moves around. And you never really know what it's done until low flow. Most years, I can keep the ditch flowing by stacking a few rocks. Other times it takes getting the water districts track hoe to move a sandbar deposited by high water. And some years it's just dry.
You think you get it all set, and flow drops slightly and everything is off again. Or there is a downpour 40 miles away up in the Uintas, and things that were bone dry suddenly come back to life. The other night, after a frustrating day of not being able to get anything flowing on the hay farm, I woke up to the sound of the Rain Bird on the front lawn sputtering, blowing air and water. Something had put enough water in the canal the pipe comes out of to bring it back to life. It lasted just a few hours.
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In theory, all of this is carefully managed by the state engineer with precisely defined water rights. Every drop is accounted for from the top of the highest mountain to the Great Salt Lake. But the state engineer doesn’t have a way to account for a beaver dam that causes a stream to flow in an entirely different place than his great ledger of water rights says it flows. I might have the right to the flow from 3 a.m. on Wednesday to 5 p.m. on Saturday, but if it isn’t physically there because the beaver blocked it, or the river is so low I can't get it into the ditch, well, that’s the breaks.
I’m used to dealing with the problems of low flow in August. It's pretty unusual to be dealing with it on the Fourth of July. It doesn’t bode well for August. The fish will be walking.
Things are still remarkably green, especially with the hot days we’ve been having. Unless there is some significant rain, which isn’t in the forecast, that’s going to change pretty quickly. All I can say is the people behind that global warming hoax are doing a pretty convincing job.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working
ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.