Jackson’s water use spikes as drought deepens


JACKSON — Teton County is falling further into a severe drought, but the tourism-charged community is simultaneously using more water than ever.

That’s a dynamic the Teton Conservation District would like to see change.

“We are facing a record low water year, and seeing a record year for water use,” district staff wrote in a press release. “We need to limit wasteful water consumption for landscaping and in our homes.”

According to town of Jackson data queried by Teton Conservation District, metered water usage jumped 16 percent between June 2020 and June 2021. The monthly difference — 22.5 million gallons — is akin to more than 34 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Meanwhile, the regional drought is only getting worse.

Northwestern Wyoming has fared OK relative to areas like the Southern Rockies, American Southwest and Great Basin that have been stricken by “extreme” and “exceptional” droughts that have driven some reservoirs to all-time lows. But the U.S. Drought Monitor classified all of Teton County as being in a “severe” drought in mid-July, which means low water pressure, declining well levels, dusty conditions and poor hay production locally.

Drought has caught the most attention in the Tetons because of its effect on surface waters.

“Of our many streams and rivers that have real-time U.S. Geological Survey flow gauges,” the district’s release states, “we see that most are now either setting 30-year record lows for this time period or are about to.”

Water temperatures, in turn, are registering at record highs. A thermometer on the Snake River gauge at Moose shows that temps have been topping out at over 68 degrees — the warmest water in 14 years of data and potentially concerning for hooked-and-released cutthroat trout.

A water year that has brought 79 percent of normal precipitation and a snowpack that melted off weeks early are also having an effect on aquifers.

The depth of the water table at the USGS’s well at Jackson Hole Airport would typically be about 36 feet underground in mid-July. But in July 2021, the water level is more like 39 feet underground — deeper than any other time in a dozen years of record keeping.

The impacts of drought on recreation at Jackson Lake are also happening earlier than anticipated. The Signal Mountain boat ramp closed to motorized vessels Wednesday, although non-motorized watercraft and motorboats on slips and buoys have at least until the end of July.

Operations at Leek’s and Signal marinas will likely also be significantly impacted.

“We ask that all moorage customers be prepared to pull their boats, if needed, starting around mid-August,” Leek’s Marina clientele were told in an emailed notice this week.

Jackson Lake, which is likely headed for its lowest level in three decades, is coming down even faster than expected, the result of slimmer-than expected upstream flows on the Snake River and mostly unabated irrigation demand in Idaho’s Magic Valley. 

About 3.2 billion gallons more water is exiting Grand Teton National Park’s impounded natural lake every day than is flowing into it, resulting in a drop of as much as 6 inches a day.

All that water is headed for Palisades Reservoir, which itself is being emptied. Ultimately Jackson Lake’s 847,000 acre-feet of stored water are needed to keep American Falls Reservoir from going dry, which will minimize harm to the downstream Snake River fishery.

“We understand that it does put a pinch on boating at Jackson Lake, but then again it does help with recreational flows,” Bureau of Land Management water operations manager Brian Stevens told the Jackson Hole Daily. “I know that some recreational groups are thrilled at the high outflow.”

The high flows coming out of the Jackson Lake Dam gates, currently 5,200 cubic feet per second, are poised to continue until about mid-September. At that time — when Jackson Lake is projected to be between 6 and 10-percent full — the releases will be tapered down in a hurry, likely reduced by about 96 percent.

As for the record water use, Teton Conservation District pointed toward landscape irrigation that began weeks earlier this year.

“As our residential and tourist populations increase, so does our demand and impact on water resources,” the district’s statement says. “So, how can you help support the viability of our drinking water aquifers and aquatic ecosystems?”

Conservation district staff listed off some-water saving tips: Watering lawns at night, flushing toilets only as needed and using mulch and drop irrigation in flower beds.