Yellowstone flowing at record low.


Mar 11, 2001
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Yellowstone flowing at record low.

By LORNA THACKERAY Of The Gazette Staff.

Not since the beginning of record-keeping nearly 100 years ago has Billings seen an August with as little water in the Yellowstone River as this one.

Every day since Monday, streamflow levels at the USGS gage here have set new record lows. According to Mel White, USGS data manager unit chief in Montana, it’s been that way practically all month.

“That’s what happens when you have two years in a row of not having adequate snowpack in the high country," he said Thursday. “It really makes you wonder about what’s in store this winter."

It had better be a big, healthy snow, according to Jim Darling at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The situation on the Yellowstone is as bad as he’s seen it since moving to Billings in 1987, and he can’t imagine it getting any worse.

“We just keep saying: ‘If we can hold on for two more weeks, when some of the crops are finally done and they can stop irrigating and the temperatures will be cooler at night.’” he said.

Dan Gatch, manager of PPL Montana’s Corette power plant in Billings, said two hydraulic pumps were installed in the Yellowstone River on Tuesday and are ready to go if flows drop to about 1,100 cubic feet per second. “We’ll wait to start those pumps until we have to run them," he said.

The coal-fired plant depends on river water to cool steam that generates electricity. The water is returned to the river after going through the plant.

PPL received permission from local, state and federal agencies to install the in-stream pumps after low flows threatened to leave the plant without water that is critical to operations. PPL normally draws river water from pumps in a channel. But the intake pumps won’t function properly if the river drops to below about 1,100 cfs.

The power plant is continuing to operate at its 150 megawatt capacity, Gatch said.

River recreation fell off early this year, Darling said.

“You effectively can’t launch a jet boat at any of our sites," he said. “It’s too shallow now. What you’re really getting down to is inner tubes."

Fishing conditions remain poor and the impact could extend for years to come. When fishermen will really feel the consequences is in about three years, he said.

“Fish of catchable size won’t be there," he said.

To keep water in the river, FWP last week exercised its senior water rights on the Yellowstone and told 17 users with junior rights that they would have to stop diverting water from the river.

Among those who received a notice was the Lockwood Water and Sewer District. According to Rick Russell, manager of the district, the drought and the notice from FWP have caused no real hardship to water users yet.

The district has both a senior and a junior right, he said. Under the senior right, the district can pump 1,400 to 1,420 gallons per minute. With the junior right, the pumps can haul in between 1,800 and 2,000 gallons per minute.

“What the loss of the junior right mean is that our pumping time goes up and we have to pay more overtime," he said.

Now, instead of operating the pumps 10 to 12 hours a day, they are operating 12 to 15 hours a day, Russell said.

He’s not worried about supplying water this summer and fall, but Russell said he’ll have to keep a close watch on the intake through the winter. Shallow, slow-moving water increases the prospects of a freeze-up at the intake.

Dave Adair, a water resource specialist with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Billings, said although there are low flows in the creeks, he’s been impressed by how many ditch company water users are not using all of the water.

“They’re doing a pretty good job about leaving a little water," Adair said. “The conservation costs them money when they let water go by that could go to their fields. We can’t force them to conserve. It’s something they’ve done on their own."

At the Billings Water Plant, Superintendent Mike Rubich foresees no problems from the continued dry spell, mostly because water use here is on the decline.

“The demand is already dropping," he said Thursday. “It’s already down 10 percent over what it was a couple weeks ago. As irrigation begins to cut off, we’ll get to a base flow that probably won’t be much different from what it is now."

The Billings plant was designed for low water, which is a good thing considering how the river has been shattering records this month. On Aug. 10, the previous record low was 1,670 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the Dust Bowl year of 1934. This year on Aug. 10, the Yellowstone managed only 1,490 cfs. The previous record low for Aug. 6 was 1,840 cfs in 1988, the year Yellowstone Park burned. This year on Aug. 6, the Yellowstone trickled through Billings at only 1,700 cfs.

On Thursday, the Yellowstone set a new record at Billings of 1,190 cfs, beating the previous record low of 1,400. The mean flow in the Yellowstone for Aug. 23 is 4,604 cfs.

USGS began keeping records on the Yellowstone at Billings in 1904.
Reporter Clair Johnson contributed to this story.

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