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May 24, 2012 8:29 am

Irrigation water holding at this point

Written by Gib Mathers

Gloom and doom is not in the immediate forecast for local irrigators, even though the mountain snow pack is nearly depleted.

As of Monday, the snow water equivalent in the Shoshone River basin was at 60 percent of the 30-year average, compared to 145 percent on the same date last year. The Big Horn River basin is worse — 57 percent, compared to 224 percent May 21, 2011. The good news is the Big Horn Basin is faring better than most of Wyoming, with the exceptions of the Madison and Yellowstone river basins at 78 and 73 percent respectively. The Upper Bear River basin was melted out, and the statewide SWE average stood at 22 percent.

“We’re not in the red like the rest of the state,” said Dan Laursen, manager of Heart Mountain Irrigation District.

Buffalo Bill Reservoir was a little more than 75 percent full on Tuesday, with a pool elevation of 5372.6 feet. Boysen Reservoir had a pool elevation of 4717.4 feet and was nearly 82 percent full.

Big Horn Reservoir (Yellowtail Dam) had a pool elevation of 3618.1 feet and is nearly 80 percent full, according to data posted by the Bureau of Reclamation.

At this time, the bureau does not anticipate Big Horn Reservoir will fill. It has reduced the release to 1,750 cubic feet per second, the minimal flow needed to maintain the fishery downstream according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Tim Felchle, Montana reservoir and river operations chief for the Bureau of Reclamation in Billings.

Local reservoirs are in fairly good shape at this time, thanks to water left from the winter of 2010-11 runoff. But  more snow needs to fall next winter to replenish reservoirs in spring 2013, said Lee Hackleman, water supply specialist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Casper.

Stored water for irrigation should be adequate this year, but irrigators drawing directly from rivers or streams may not fare so well. “Guys in direct flow are going to miss that snow pack,” Hackleman said.

Snowpack remains in the higher reaches of the Shoshone and Big Horn river basins, and they might receive more white stuff over the weekend. Hackleman said he hopes the snow sticks to the slope and more warming doesn’t send it down before August.

The Shoshone River basin was at 101 percent snow water equivalent March 5, and the Big Horn River basin was at 125 percent. Then unseasonably warm temperatures kicked in, and precipitation began to ebb.

“Everything disappeared from March on,” Hackleman said.

The Garland Canal is full. Demand is high, but growers are getting the water they need, said Bryant Startin, Shoshone Irrigation District manager.

Shoshone District ditch riders have been busy. Within a week of filling the canal in mid-April, users were calling for water. The ground has been dry, it’s been warm and there has been very little precipitation, Startin said.

“We’ve got plenty of water,” said Tom Walker, manager for the Willwood Irrigation District.

It seemed barley growers, who traditionally need water early anyway, were needing more this year to start their crops, Walker said.

Water demand should ease a bit now on the Willwood, but a wet June would help as demand increases again in July. Although Walker believes there is enough water stored in the reservoir, if demand is high in July, the district might struggle a bit getting water to its users, he said.

In February, gates at Roan Wash at the base of the McCullough Peaks were replaced and updated to remote control to save time driving to the distant site and to efficiently monitor and control the amount of water flowing through the gates into the Willwood Irrigation District canal system.

“I’m real pleased with that system,” Walker said.

Walker is urging water conservation and asking users to keep ditches, turnouts, etc. clean to keep the system running as efficiently as possible.

A snow-melt gauge, based on years of observation by locals, is the horse’s head gazing at Cody from Carter Mountain to the south. For many years, the horse has indicated when the spring runoff will end. As the snow on Carter melts, the head becomes visible, then reins hanging from its head. When the reins break, the runoff season is over. Last year, the reins broke July 10. By the weekend of May 19-20, 2012, the reins were nearly severed. “It looks like we’re going to be out by the end of the month,” Startin said.

A cold front was predicted to blast across western Wyoming Wednesday (yesterday) bringing with it cooler weather for the weekend, but the National Weather Service said the system might not be as severe as it initially predicted. Still, as folks pack cars for an extended weekend Friday, there is a 50 to 60 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms with a high of about 50 degrees. On Saturday, the chance for rain and thunderstorms is 40 percent with a high near 55 degrees. By Sunday the high should reach about 60 degrees with the chance for showers relenting to 30 percent, transitioning to partly cloudy skies that evening and mostly sunny skies Memorial Day. The high Monday is predicted to rise to a benign 69 degrees.

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