There are a lot of phrases to describe what is going on with Utah reservoirs as managers gird for the runoff from a record snowpack year.
“It is a lot of balls up in the air that we are juggling,” said Darren Hess, assistant general manager and chief operating officer of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.
“It is a bit nerve-wracking. But we have professionals who have worked their whole careers on these type of things and understand the watershed. They understand the system.”
After years of drought, Mother Nature came through this year, and came through big, delivering record snowpack, and with that comes record runoff in many locations.
“We never quite thought we would see this,” Hess added. “It is crazy to think about how much snow is piled up in the mountains.”
Coordination is key
Weber County Engineer Gary Myers is in constant contact with basin employees and the state Department of Natural Resources as a bevy of people wrangle with the raging Weber River and try to keep it under control.
“It’s been a miserable couple of months,” he said. “It is kind of like this delicate dance that we are playing in terms of how much water to release, how much water to keep in the reservoirs to make room for the snowpack that is bound to come. It is a dicey situation to be sure. But I think any infrastructure work that was done downstream is certainly helpful when it comes to flooding that might impact people’s property.”
Hess said Pineview Reservoir has already been sending water to the Ogden River, which meets up with the Weber River around 12th Street in Ogden. Any flooding that has happened downstream has been the result of controlled releases, he added, as operators are jockeying to make room for more water.
The basin is trying to keep Pineview as empty as possible, although that is difficult with an over-the-brim Causey Reservoir upstream that is at capacity. It empties into Pineview.
Benjamin Quick, general manager of the Ogden River Water Users Association, the South Ogden and Weber-Box Elder conservation districts, said people are hungry for full reservoirs right now, but that is not going to happen — not yet.
“Regardless of how badly people want a full reservoir, we are trying to protect the infrastructure and lives,” he said. “Right now, what water comes in has to go out.”
And Quick emphasized strongly this is not a guessing game for any of the water associations, system operators or anyone else involved in the intricate game of managing water that many people don’t understand — in times of drought and times like this year.
“They are not doing this willy-nilly. Just about every scenario has been analyzed.”
But consider this reality that keeps reservoir operators up at night, with a bottle of antacids at their side:
- Pineview’s capacity is 110,000 acre-feet. The runoff forecast calls for 300,000 acre-feet that has to run through the dam with the anticipated runoff. That is 2.5 times the capacity.
- Pineview and other reservoirs in the Weber Basin system are deliberately being kept low to make room for the water that hits the Weber River. Rockport is hovering at 26% capacity, while Echo is less than half full at 45%.
- In the 1950s, the Weber River at the mouth of the canyon was roaring at 8,000 cubic feet per second. The basin is trying to keep that number at 3,500 to 4,000. The Weber River blew out its banks in the lower reaches in 2011 due to high runoff, flooding homes in western Weber County.
Planning for flooding
Weber County Engineer Myers said since then, there has been a $26 million investment with county, state and federal funds to try to prevent that from happening again.
Crews cleared the river and various channels of debris and gates were installed at the Little Weber River, which takes the strain off the Weber River.
Myers said that previously, that relief valve was inoperable, putting more pressure on the system.
This way, water can be diverted from the river and flow from the Warren infrastructure out through the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area and into the Great Salt Lake.
But it is not in an ideal location, and Myers said the county has already had to give advance notice to a cattle rancher, because the Little Weber River runs right through his property and he had to move his cattle.
Myers said the Weber River banks blew in 2011 with water flowing at 3,300 cubic feet per second. This year, they have had surges of 4,300 cubic feet per second, and they have not blown a bank. So, the work paid off.
But the location of the diversion makes it tricky.
“By the time the water gets to the point where the gates are located, most of that is a populated area of Weber County already. So, it would be better if it passes through an unpopulated area so it does not put anyone in danger. But unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in this day and age because most of the ground that could be developed, has been developed.”
Myers said they started seeing the high flows back in March and have been planning and watching, and watching some more.
“It has been a long stretched out duration and you know when things flow and that high water starts to appear in places where it normally isn’t, it can be alarming to people, especially on the heels of this drought. So people are nervous, and rightfully so.”
Overall, about eight miles of waterway were improved, including the Little Weber River and its channels.
Myers said he has to “tip his hat” to the people at Weber Basin Water Conservancy District and the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which manages the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area, where that excess water flows.
“When we saw the amount of snow piling up clear back in January, we started talking to the managers at Ogden Bay and started coordinating with them,” he said. “As a result, when the flows started to escalate and ramp up back in March, the state partnered with us and they opened their gates as wide as they could and they have been open nonstop ever since.”
Myers said when you have a clear path for that water to move through, there is a lot less that gets backed up in the main channel and that is a lot of relief to residences. They’ve been absolute rock stars to work with this year.”
That early coordination that began in January has been critical, he added.
“We could see this is not your normal year. We just wanted to get ahead of this as much as we can.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Gary Moore as the Weber County Engineer. It should be Gary Myers.