SALT LAKE CITY — A bad winter with little snow could be the stuff of nightmares next summer for Utah's reservoir managers, but shrinking reservoirs are already causing headaches for anglers and boaters this summer.
Although it was on a minor scale, heat combined with low reservoir levels resulted in a kill of about 600 fish at Strawberry Reservoir this month, and fish have also been reported at Utah Lake in Provo and Ken's Lake near Moab.
"At Strawberry it was fairly minor, but anytime you have a fish kill it is troublesome," said Drew Cushing, warm water sports fishery coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
"Two years ago we didn't have any snowpack of real consequence. We had a dry, warm spring, hot dry summer and so our groundwater is not up to what it should be," he said. "It's a compound effect and the reservoirs are paying the price."
With some reservoirs on the brink of suffering fish kills, the division has upped the limit on the number of fish anglers can harvest.
"We've doubled the limit in some places to give anglers an opportunity to harvest the fish rather than have them dying in the water," he said. Those limits have been upped at places like Piute Reservoir, which is half full and scheduled to be drained this fall for irrigation needs, and also in effect at Fairview Reservoir.
The division is also taking emergency action as a result of the drought to redirect where fish are stocked.
Cushing said if Fairview Reservoir for example, was on the schedule for restocking, the efforts would be directed to other reservoirs that aren't in that kind of decline.
As summer progresses, officials warn that water levels are only going to get worse, posing challenges for anglers and boaters alike.
Tage Flint, manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, said Echo is dropping two feet a day and is hovering at 38 percent of capacity.
Weber County's Pineview Reservoir is half full and Jordanelle is not much better, hovering at about 55 percent.
"Recreation is going to be very difficult in late summer and fall," Flint said.
Both Echo and Rockport have been kept about as full as possible to get them through the Pioneer Day camping and boating surge, Flint said, but that will change in the weeks to come because of the shape and topography of the reservoirs.
"The lower half of the reservoirs are more narrow, so the vertical drop per acre will go fast. They will drop in elevation more quickly."
At Echo, one boat launch is already out of service.
"We are on the old ramp to launch," said Leslie Bird, restaurant manager at the resort. "I pray for snow every year so we can get filled back up. Labor Day last year, both ramps were out of water."
Robert Messina, a boater who was visiting the reservoir recently to water ski, said this summer has been especially harsh on Echo.
"We we usually see it lower much later. It is sad to see it this low, but we are still having fun," he said. "The last couple of years have been light on snow, so this is what that looks like."
Fred Hayes, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, said water levels may be low, but the harder thing is fighting public perception that the reservoirs are no longer a good place for boaters to play and anglers to fish.
"As the water levels go down, people think there is not any water and so they don't even try to come out."
Low reservoirs also expose new hazards for boaters, so being out on the water requires a more watchful eye, he said.
Hayes said while most waters remain viable for boating, as the water levels drop, the worries increase.
"We're a little worried about some of the lakes losing some of our launching facilities," he said. "Some of them don't go out very far to accommodate really low water."
Ironically, the North Marina at Willard Bay State Park — which just opened July 19 after being closed for four months due to a diesel fuel pipeline spill — may have to close again if the water gets to low.
"It is built on the Great Salt Lake flats and if it silts in the marina, you can't get a boat out. The passage way is silted in."
Hayes said the area has been dredged a few times, but there is that possibility the silt will build up again.
"It becomes a mud flat between the launching facilities and the rest of the lake," Hayes said.
Still, Cushing said the there is good news to be found in the face of Utah's shriveling waterways.
"Although access is not what it should be and we have had some fish kills, but everything but the low to mid-level reservoirs are fishing very well well."
He added that this summer has been reminiscent of the drought years in the early 2000's.3 comments on this story
"Utah is a desert state by nature and so you can expect these drought cycles," he said, "but that was a pretty rough stretch back then. We don't need that again. We need snowpack that is 100 percent or better, in the right places at the right time, so we hold that snow, hold that groundwater and have some runoff to fill our reservoirs."
Hayes, too, has his hopes pinned on winter snowfall.
"If we have another year like this year, we will be in trouble statewide and not just with recreation, with water supply."