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Supporters of river, lake at Bighorn at odds as tourism season gears up

Posted at 9:23 PM, Apr 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-24 23:23:34-04

BILLINGS – Supporters of Bighorn Lake and Bighorn River came to the table Tuesday in Billings to discuss their differences over managing the two distinct waterways.

Their conversation is a work in progress on a new plan for the Bighorn’s future and a chance to appease both sides.

One side, Friends of BigHorn Lakebenefits from how Bighorn Lake operates. The other,the Bighorn River Alliance, finds its bread and butter downstream along the river.

The push and pull comes down to management of the Yellowtail Dam and how the fluctuating water levels affect tourism and way of life.

The mission of Friends of BigHorn Lake is to build on the recreational, economic and environmental opportunities of the lake. But the group’s concern is the lack of flow allowed out the dam.

Meanwhile, the Bighorn River Alliance wants less water on its banks as it thrives on the fishing economy with many living along the river.

The two sides have lost trust in each other in recent months, and both agree a path for reconciliation will be tough.

"We feel we’ve been harmed, and we haven’t asked for further remedy," said Elaine Harvey, executive director of the Wyoming economic development group Lovell Inc. "Just follow the originating documents. Just finish the development of the road and operate the dam so the lake is full enough to launch a boat from Memorial Day to Labor Day."

The two groups remained cordial in Tuesday’s forum and acknowledge a solution will require "shared suffering."

"Both sides are going to have to compromise a little bit on what they’re willing to accept in certain water conditions in terms of snow pack," said Doug Haacke, Bighorn River Alliance board member. "When it’s high snow pack years, the lake elevations are going to be lower in the spring and you can’t launch boats at the south end of the lake by Memorial Day. When it’s dry and certainly lows will come again, we know we’re going to suffer. But with really low flows, that will hurt the fishing. Both sides have to be willing to compromise on some of those important issues depending on the water year. It’s pretty much that simple."

The federal government is forced to find what is best, which may make neither side happy.

"There really is not a perfect solution," said Steve Davies, Bureau of Reclamation’s Montana area manager. "I think what we try to accomplish in meetings like this is educating people about constraints we have as operators of the dam. Mother Nature is not often kind to us. We are thrown curveballs. We have to deal with those things. Lot of times, the timing of that doesn’t meet with what they would like to see and there’s not a lot we can do about that some years."

The Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service is working to update its operating criteria, which was created a decade ago, forming a new technical group to do new analysis on possible changes to the management plan.

"What we’re hoping for is the river gets a little more consideration in what happens to it from the ecology, from the recreation side. But it’s much more than recreation," said Justin Hossfeld, Bighorn River Alliance member. "It’s farming and ranching, local landowners, municipalities, the town of Hardin. Our hope is the BoR will take a little more consideration of what’s going on downstream as they manage the fills and releases of the dam."

The operational criteria review is expected to be finished by the end of the year, but this issue could very well end up in court before then.