Daily DrakeSho1

Last week workers pulled the plug to a decaying diversion dam on Wyoming’s Shoshone River, near Cody, unleashing a trout-suffocating slurry careening 20+ miles downstream toward Bighorn Lake.

Wyoming DEQ blessed the project in November 2015, giving the Willwood Irrigation District the go-ahead to release water in order to start a $1.6 million tune-up of the 92-year-old Willwood Diversion Dam.

The result to the fishery has been nuclear, notes Cody-based guide and outfitter Scott Sweebe. Dead rainbow, brown and Bonneville cutthroat trout, along with whitefish and suckers, have been found downstream of the dam in recent days. The section holds about 1,200 trout per mile, all of which could be gonners.

Sho1“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sweebe says. “It looks like a thick chocolate shake with less than a millimeter of clarity… and they’re planning on running [the dam] wide open for at least another two weeks.”

The settling pond formed by the irrigation ditch is about a mile long and held approximately 60 feet of gray silt that’s been mounding for more than 50 years.

According to the Billings Gazette, the irrigation district looked into extracting sediment prior to drawdown by using heavy machinery. Stakeholders said the $5.6 million alternative was too spendy.

The irrigation district has a history of fouling the river. According to a 2010 Wyoming DEQ report, “In 2007 a malfunction in the Willwood Dam caused a large sediment plume to be released downstream, killing thousands of fish on the Shoshone River. Similar sediment releases have occurred in the past.”

Sho2A letter from DEQ to Willwood Irrigation District, addressed to irrigation district manager Thomas Walker, allowed for a “temporary increase in turbidity” lasting as long as 45 days. It added:

“This authorization does not relieve you or your contractor of any liability for damages to aquatic life, habitat or other beneficial uses that may result from an increase in turbidity. It does not exempt you or your contractor from any other federal, state or local laws or regulations, nor does it provide exemption from legal action by private citizens for damage to property that the activity may cause.”

Tom Bie

Tom Bie is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Drake. He started the magazine in 1998 as an annual newsprint publication based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved it to Steamboat, Colorado (1999), Boulder, Colorado (2001), and San Clemente, California (2004), as he took jobs as managing editor at Paddler, Senior Editor at Skiing, and Editor-in-Chief at Powder, respectively. Tom and The Drake are now both based in Denver, Colorado, where The Drake is finally all grows up(Swingers, 1996) to a quarterly magazine.

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