The Worst Drought In The Western United States In 1,200 Years

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Vernal, Utah (WABNEWS) — Among those who love to chase trout on flies made of feathers, the mere mention of a certain 7-mile stretch of Utah’s Green River can make a hardened man rhapsodic.

“I’ve guided in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Alaska,” said Gordon Tharrett, describing his 30-year career guiding elite fly fishermen around the world. “I had never seen anything like it”.

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“It’s phenomenal,” said Stephen Lytle, the son of the local ranger who has been swimming and fishing this stretch since childhood. “You’ve got people from all over the world. Eric Clapton has been here. Tiger Woods. If you’re a fly fisherman, this is one of the places to go.”

But it brings up the worst drought in the western US. in 1,200 years and his reverie turns to anxiety and disgust.

They may have more water than most, hundreds of miles from fallow farms in Arizona or golden lawns in Los Angeles, but they know that in the Colorado River system, massive and uncontrolled demand for water downstream is a threat to everything that is upstream.

“Millions of gallons of water are needed for a golf course,” Tharrett said. “It will come to a point where people will have to decide, ‘Should I survive or play golf? Should I have a lawn in the desert or pay $100 for a basket of berries?'”

“The gorge is on fire,” John Wesley Powell wrote in a journal after he first saw the golden hour illuminate the red rocks in what would become known as Flaming Gorge.

A fly fisherman on the Green River, south of Flaming Gorge Dam.

It was 1871 and after launching his ship, the Emma Dean, on Wyoming’s Green River, the one-armed Civil War veteran was on his way to becoming the first known man to float and row this major tributary into the Colorado and across of the Grand Canyon.

His trip followed the passage of the Homestead Act, which promised that any citizen willing to settle and improve America’s Wild West could claim 150 acres of federal land for free.

But after studying the geology and hydrology of the Colorado Basin, Powell warned that this policy was “building up a legacy of conflict and litigation over water rights, because there is not enough water to supply these lands.”

Congress and newly formed state governments ignored the warning, and by the mid-20th century were convinced that by damming various points along the Colorado system they could engineer enough oases to keep farms, ranches, and megacities alive.

“In this part of America, the key is water,” said John F. Kennedy during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Flaming Gorge Dam in 1963. “The Colorado Basin will no longer be home to an erratic flow of water, which causes drought and poverty in dry years and waste in wet years. Now water will be available wherever it is needed…”

I wish it was like that…

Less than three months later, tragedy struck the president in Dallas, and in the years after it opened, the dam was having devastating effects on fish downstream.

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But in the late 1970s, after a graduate student convinced Utah’s fly-fishing governor to consider retrofitting a dam called a penstock, engineers were able to release from specific depths of the Flaming Gorge reservoir, controlling the temperature of the waste water below and creating a Goldilocks Zone for the insects that hatch and the rainbow and brown trout that feast on them.

The Green River is one of the best places in the country for fly fishing due to the controlled temperature of the water released by the Flaming Gorge Dam.

Today, most of the local economy relies on tourists who come to splash in the reservoir, which stretches deep into Wyoming, or fish and float in the Green River. And when the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and four states in the upper Colorado River basin agreed to release 616,740,000 cubic meters (1/6 of the reservoir’s capacity) to help desiccated communities in the south, it created a local uproar.

“There are a lot of people who just get mad,” Lytle said, paddling through the swirling crystal clear waters. “It’s their water. It’s their geographic possession. people”.

“We’re worried,” said Woody Bair, co-owner of the Flaming Gorge Resort, as he leaned against shelves stocked with hand-tied flies. “As Lake Powell has sunk over the years, we’re worried, ‘Will Flaming Gorge get to the point where it doesn’t generate electricity or go way, way down?'”

Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border, is named after the man who first sounded the alarm more than 150 years ago. And climate change is accelerating his grim prediction.

The temperature-controlled outlet of the reservoir creates a Goldilocks zone for insect and trout hatching.

The reservoir has fallen terribly close to the “dead pool,” when “we drew a vortex similar to what you would see in a bathtub when the water drains out,” said Nicholas Williams, energy manager for the Bureau of Reclamation for the upper river basin. Colorado. . “If you don’t have a deep enough pool of water up top, that causes problems and can damage power plant equipment and it’s too low to generate electricity.”

Recovery officials told a Senate committee this week that Western states should prepare for even more dramatic cuts in Colorado River water allocation in 2023.

“How long can we do this?” Williams said of the Flaming Gorge releases. “It is limited to a few years. The rest will depend on how long we persist in the drought and where our water use goes. We are going to have to learn to live with the water we have. and the use that we have maintained during the last decades is going to change”.

Tharrett thinks officials are under the misconception that they can save anything by draining reservoirs in the upper basin.

“It’s like a teenager when they get their first paycheck,” Tharrett told WABNEWS, “and the next day they go and spend it all and they don’t get paid for two weeks and then they panic. All these upper deposits, which are the soul of everything below, will have nothing.”

He added: “And then they’re really going to panic.”

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