EAST CANYON DAM, Morgan County — Multiple times a day and into the evening hours, Chris Hogge is monitoring stream flows, checking the runoff forecast, the weather and the capacity at East Canyon Dam and a half-dozen other reservoirs in northern Utah.
He doesn't grind antacid tablets or complain of an ulcer. Instead, there's a bit of a sparkle in his eye.
"I enjoy it. It gives you something to do at night."
Hogge is the manager of power and irrigation for the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, and on Friday morning, battling a brisk wind and a smattering of raindrops, he stood on the crest of the 260-foot high dam at East Canyon Reservoir.
Like his colleagues from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the general manager of the Davis/Weber Canal Co., Hogge marveled at the spectacular torrent of water that gushed over the spillway into East Canyon Creek below.
"In the last five years, nobody cared about flood control because there was no flood control," Hogge said, recalling Utah's prolonged drought marked by below-average snowpack.
The last time any of these water aficionados saw East Canyon Dam's spillway do what it's built for — relieve the swelling reservoir with surges of water — was in 2011.
That year, however, brought too much of a good thing, all at once.
While the spillway was spitting out 110 cubic feet per second of water on Friday — at peak — in 2011 it hit around 300 cubic feet per second.
"The safe channel capacity (at East Canyon Creek) is 250 cubic feet per second," Hogge said. "At 300 cubic feet per second, it was more than we wanted."
Right now, East Canyon is at its brim.
Its inflow from the creek is 300 cubic feet per second.
"Obviously, there's no space available," Hogge said, adding that he believes East Canyon Creek, which feeds the reservoir, reached its peak a couple of weeks ago.
Much of his work is based on technology, measuring and modeling — scientific predictors of how streams will behave in the coming weeks.
But Hogge said there's also other tools he relies on.
"There is a lot of guesswork and listening to the old-timers who've been around."
There's a snow formation, as an example, on the mountains in Morgan Valley that resembles a dove. Hogge said those old-timers will tell him when the dove is gone, that means the peak flow of rivers and streams has come and gone.
Hogge admits he will look to see if that dove is still there, but he is also relying on a whole host of numbers to guide his decisions.
Earlier this year, those numbers were critical at Pineview, farther to the north. That reservoir, which is 94 percent full — has already released enough water this season to fill it 1 1/2 times so it can handle the coming runoff. Its capacity is 110,149 acre-feet of water.
"We could have filled it in March, but if you fill it too soon, you are at the mercy of nature's runoff," Hogge said. "That is why it's so important to save some space in the reservoirs so you can absorb the peak of runoff."
At the same time, Hogge said the idea is not to release too much water because the goal is to get the reservoirs to fill so there is a cushion of water in years that are dry.
Gary Henrie, a civil engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said it is a tricky business of keeping enough water for storage and not releasing too much that it will flood.
"You have a dam in place and you think you can control the river and you have this much space, but then Mother Nature throws you a curveball," he said.
Henrie and his colleagues at the bureau — which is the nation's largest wholesale water supplier — oversee 48 dams in Utah.
Henrie, who also specializes in hydrology, said the bureau acts as a "middle man" between districts like Weber Basin and the Army Corps of Engineers, which requires operational plans in place for flood control.
Like Hogge, he said flood control is something they haven't had to think about in a few years.
"In wet years like this, you're making sure there's enough space in the reservoirs. For the last five years, which were dry, it is catch everything you can, catch everything you can and hold onto it. Now, we go to all of a sudden 200 percent snowpack in some places. Your mentality needs to shift, and that takes a little time."
While the lower- and mid-elevation snow has melted, the high mountain snowpack has yet to come down — and everyone is holding their breath that it behaves and melts in an orderly fashion.
"We're not out of the woods yet, but we're in a great place," Hogge said.5 comments on this story
Hyrum, Pineview, Jordanelle, Rockport and Echo reservoirs have room to take on more water, as does Strawberry and Starvation in the Uinta Drainage Basin.
About every other reservoir is to the brim, such as Causey, Willard Bay and East Canyon.
Rachel Musil, a civil engineer with the bureau, said the chilly Friday in the mountains southeast of Morgan provided some respite for water managers who didn't have to worry about more snow melt coming their way.
"It's such a moving target," she said. "This calms things down."