THE BUZZ 2: Low Levels, High Danger

By on May 9, 2017

A “very, very empty” reservoir contributed to boater fatalities in the Palisades.

(Photo: M. Beeton/Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Low water levels combined with freezing temperatures from snowmelt run-off created precarious boating conditions for the three recreationists found dead in the Palisades Reservoir last week.

The bodies of Leo S. Brit of Grapeview, Washington, and Niel and Sydney Hines of Jefferson City, Wyoming, were found floating in the water on Friday. They are believed to have died of hypothermia after their boat capsized. The water temperature that day was 42 degrees.

“The initial investigation says their boat was overloaded,” said Bonneville County Sheriff Sgt. Chris Smith. The trio was preparing for an overnight camping trip, and had packed their 16-foot motorized canoe full of gear. The full boat, combined with 14 mile per hour winds that created two- to three-foot swells, and debris-filled water, likely caused their boat to capsize, Smith said.

It’s not uncommon for people to make that trip this time of year. What is uncommon, however, is the amount of water in the reservoir.  The reservoir is only at 8 percent, which is at least 70 percent lower than usual, Smith estimated. “[Water level] is between 70 to 90 percent full usually,” he said, “but usually we don’t have this snowpack.”

Corey Loveland is the water manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Palisades Dam and Reservoir. He explained that due to heavy snowpack—150 percent above average—the bureau brought the water level down to anticipate snowmelt. As of May 8, Loveland said, the reservoir was holding 111,00 acre-feet of water. The average for the same date is approximately 710,000 acre-feet. What does that look like to a passerby or recreationist?

“Very, very empty,” Loveland said. “It’s essentially down at the bottom.”

Such low water levels don’t bode well for boaters. “It’s hard to get boats and kayaks and canoes out there,” Loveland said, “and the water’s a little murky.”

Smith added that low water levels also stir up heavy amounts of debris and obstructions under the water. When the water is already murky, it’s hard to see obstacles that might damage or capsize a boat. And even, or especially, in shallow water, wind can stir up big swells, which Smith says the reservoir is notorious for. “If the wind starts to pick up, it’ll get extremely high swells,” Smith said.

Managing water levels with such a heavy snowpack is uniquely challenging, Loveland said. “You’re relying heavily on the forecast, which can change with the weather,” he said. “It depends on how much [snow] melts off … we’re essentially minimizing high flows downstream by lowering the reservoir so we don’t get full.” In other words, they are lowering water levels in anticipation of a heavy snowmelt that hasn’t happened yet. “We still have a lot of high elevation snowpack that hasn’t melted,” Loveland said. “That’s why we brought it down.”

As of May 1, the forecast reported 4.3 million acre-feet of snow above the Palisades. Smith estimated the dam is releasing approximately 18,000 cubic feet of water per second from the dam, but with the snowmelt, there are about 23,000 cubic feet of water coming into the reservoir per second. That’s a good sign for recreationists, but makes for a lot of work for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Snowmelt is also responsible for the water’s extremely low temps, which is ultimately what killed the boaters. In water between 40 to 50 degrees, it can take as few as 15 minutes for hypothermia to set in, Scientific American reports. Smith estimates the trio was in the water for 12 to 24 hours before their bodies were found.

Smith guessed that the water was about 11 feet deep where the boat capsized. The trio had put in at Blowout boat ramp, and was heading across the reservoir toward Van Creek, about a mile across the water. They were only planning on staying one night, but brought a “whole bunch of gear” that bogged their boat down—tents, clothes, a couple of air mattresses, coolers. Sometimes, Smith said, the safer bet is to take two trips as the crossing is about 15 to 20 minutes.

Still, Smith said, they were being responsible. All three were wearing life vests, even though it is not legally required to wear them on the water (it is required to have the life vests in the boat—one per person, Smith said). Smith believes they were on the water after 6 p.m., which is when the wind picked up, but they still had plenty of daylight left.

One of the lessons to be learned, Smith said, is to attach a whistle to life vests. That way folks in danger can call for help even if they are not easily visible from the shore. But that only works if there are people around to hear, and Smith says with the water level as low as it is, not many people are on the water right now. “You couldn’t even get a larger boat into the reservoir on Blowout [boat ramp],” Smith said.

There is “nothing wrong with making that trip,” even at this time of year, but people “have to be cautious about what they’re doing. Make sure they’re in the proper vessel, they have safety gear,” he advised.

When asked about signage or warnings posted about the reservoir’s low water levels (there are none), Smith replied: “As you know, you’re boating at your own risk. If there’s extreme danger, fire—yeah, they will [post warnings].

“But low water,” he continued, “is a boater’s responsibility, it’s like driving a vehicle. If the roads get slick, you gotta be careful on the roads. If the water’s low, you gotta be careful on the water.”

The trio brought their canine companion, found alive onshore Friday. PJH

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