Competing water issues at play in Teton County

Recent cuts to Jackson Lake Dam flows highlight a tussle between Wyoming ecological needs and Idaho farmers' water rights.
The Bureau of Reclamation was going to only allow 50 cfs of water to flow from the Jackson Lake Dam into the Snake River before the May 15th Agreement was made to keep the flow at a minimum of 280 cfs in effort to keep the river's environment alive (Natalie Shilati/KHOL)

Officials from the Federal Bureau of Reclamation recently met with residents to explain why they cut Jackson Lake Dam water to guarantee water rights to farmers in Idaho.  

But some locals said they don’t think Wyoming’s environmental concerns are carrying enough weight.

Reservoirs are full

Sixty to 80 people filled the Teton County Library on Thursday as Bureau of Reclamation officials explained that snowpack, snowmelt, flood mitigation and the weather are all at play on the Snake River. And reservoirs downstream like American Falls, the largest on the Snake River and in Idaho, are full and at risk of overflowing. 

“When you talk about the value of water, if American Falls does spill … that water coming out of Jackson was going to have a price tag on it,” said Tim Coplan, Bureau of Reclamation EEO Manager with the Columbia-Pacific Northwest Regional Office. “It is a big deal in the irrigation industry.”

Tim Coplan with the Bureau of Reclamation explains the upper Snake River’s water system at their annual meeting. (Natalie Shilati/KHOL)

The federal agency and Wyoming officials recently agreed to a heavily reduced flow through the Jackson Lake dam – 280 cubic feet per second [cfs] to help save the ecological health of the Oxbow Bend portion of the Snake River in Teton County.

Coplan said the initial amount determined by the Bureau was going to be 50 cfs.

“In one way it is a small difference,” Coplan said. “But to Wyoming that’s a huge difference. And if it’s lower than 280 that’s a big difference, negatively for Wyoming. On the Idaho perspective, for irrigation, that’s a positive.”

Local pushback

Wyoming and the bureau have reached an agreement so that Oxbow Bend will get the minimal flows needed for ecological survival. According to Wyoming Game and Fish, “The 4.5-mile stretch of river below the dam is critical habitat for Snake River cutthroat trout, shore birds, wildlife and the bluehead sucker — a species of greatest conservation need.”

There were concerns that if solely Wyoming used its water supply, flows would only last a few weeks. The federal government will help supplement flows as part of the new agreement. 

But the decision to cut water caught Teton County commissioners, state officials and Jackson residents by surprise. 

Local Jared Becker told officials he thinks the U.S. government is leaning too hard on the Cowboy State to guarantee water rights to farmers in Idaho.

“I really feel like the State of Wyoming has bailed out the Bureau of Rec and your sister agency of Grand Teton to maintain these flows,” Becker said.

The Bureau of Reclamation presented this slide that shows the communication and coordination they do with various stakeholders of the Snake River. (Natalie Shilati/KHOL)

After the meeting, Becker said he still doesn’t feel like his concerns are being heard.

“[The Bureau of Reclamation’s] mission states that water shall be managed in an environmental and economical way for all people and my concern is that it’s being mostly managed for an economic purpose for irrigators in southern Idaho,” Becker said.

Bureau officials, like Deputy Area Manager of the Snake River Office, Lanie Paquin, told residents they are considering environmental impacts, but the waterway is a complex system and there has been staff turnover inside the agency. 

“I would not say that it’s not taking the environment into account. I think we’ve got, I’ll be straight up, new players,” Paquin said. “We’re all learning.”

Officials also told residents that they’re open to having more frequent conversations about their decisions moving forward.

KHOL News Director Tyler Pratt contributed to this report.

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