Fly fishing

Southwest’s unchecked thirst for Colorado River water could prove devastating upstream

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

“It’s phenomenal,” said Stephen Lytle, the local game warden’s son who has floated and fished this stretch since he was a child. “You have 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 conjure up the worst drought in the American West in 1,200 years and their reverie turns to anxiety and disgust. They may have more water than most—hundreds of miles from fallow farms in Arizona or brown lawns in Los Angeles—but they know that on the Colorado River system, the massive, unchecked demand for downstream water threatens everything upstream.

“It takes millions of gallons of water for a golf course,” Tharrett said. “It’s going to get to a point where people have to decide, ‘Do I survive or do I play golf? Do I have a lawn in the desert or pay $100 for a basket of berries?’ “

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

It was 1871 and after launching his boat, the Emma Dean, into the Green River in Wyoming, the one-armed Civil War veteran was on his way to becoming the first known man to float and paddle this major tributary. in Colorado and through the Grand Canyon.

His trip followed the passage of the Homestead Act, which promised that any citizen willing to settle and improve the American Wild West could claim 160 acres of federal land for free.

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

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

Congress and the newly formed state governments ignored the warning, and by the mid-twentieth century they were convinced that by diking various places along the Colorado system they could engineer enough oases to sustain the farms, ranches and megacities.

“In this part of the United States, water is the key,” John F. Kennedy said at the Flaming Gorge Dam dedication ceremony in 1963. “The Colorado Basin will no longer be home to an irregular flow of water, causing drought and poverty in dry years and wastage in wet years. From now on, water will be available wherever it is needed…”

If only.

Less than three months later, the president met with tragedy in Dallas, and in the years since his dedication, the dam has had devastating effects on fish downstream.

The local economy around Flaming Gorge depends on tourists who come to splash around in the reservoir or to fish and float in the Green River.
The temperature-controlled outlet of the tank provides a Goldilocks area for hatching insects and trout.

But in the late 1970s, after a graduate student convinced the fly-fishing governor of Utah to consider a dam retrofit called a penstock, engineers were able to free up specific depths of the reservoir. of Flaming Gorge, controlling the temperature of the downstream water below and creating a Goldilocks Zone for hatching insects and feasting rainbow and brown trout.

Today, much of the local economy depends on tourists who come to splash around in the reservoir, which stretches deep into Wyoming, or to fish and float the Green. And when the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and four states in the upper Colorado River agreed to free up 500,000 acre-feet – 1/6 of the reservoir’s capacity – to help parched communities to the south, it created an uproar. local.

“There’s a lot of people getting angry,” Lytle said, as he paddled through the gin-clear whirlpools. “It’s their water. It’s their geographic possession. So they don’t like it going down to the desert towns that need it too. And any effect on fishing, especially here? I mean, it is people’s livelihood.”

“We are concerned,” said Woody Bair, co-owner of the Flaming Gorge Resort, while leaning on shelves overflowing with hand-tied flies. “As Lake Powell has gone down over the years, we worry, ‘Is Flaming Gorge going to get to the point where it’s no longer generating electricity or going very, very low? “”

Fly fishermen come from all over the world to fish for rainbow trout and brown trout from the Rivière Verte.

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

The reservoir collapsed in a scary way near the “dead pool”, when “we draw a vortex similar to what you would see in a bathtub as the water flows out,” said Nicholas Williams, head of the Bureau of Reclamation feed for the upper Colorado basin. . “If you don’t have a deep enough water basin above it causes problems and can damage power plant equipment and is too low to generate electricity.”

Reclamation officials told a Senate committee this week that Western states should prepare for even more dramatic reductions in Colorado River water allocation in 2023 — up to four million acres. -feet or more than 1.3 trillion gallons, almost as much as California is allotted in a year.

CNN Chief Climate Correspondent Bill Weir holds a rainbow trout caught on the Green River.

“How long can we do this?” Williams said of the Flaming Gorge exits. “It’s limited to a few years. The rest will depend on how long we persist in the drought, and where does our water consumption go? We will have to learn to live with the water we have, and the use that we have suffered over the past decades will change.”

Tharrett thinks officials have a mistaken idea that they’ll be able to save something by emptying the reservoirs in the upper basin.

“It’s like being a teenager when they get their first paycheck,” Tharrett told CNN, “and the next day they go there and they spend it all and they don’t get paid for two weeks and then they freak out. If they empty all those upper reservoirs, which are the cornerstone of everything below, they will have nothing.”

He added: “And then they’ll really freak out.”