Effects of Water-Use Development on Yellowstone River Streamflow Analyzed

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A new fact sheet published by the U.S. Geological Survey describes the cumulative hydrologic effects of water-resource development in the Yellowstone River. 

HELENA, Mont. – A new fact sheet published by the U.S. Geological Survey describes the cumulative hydrologic effects of water-resource development in the Yellowstone River. The Yellowstone River is an important natural resource to the State of Montana and is used for a variety of purposes including irrigation, recreation, and municipal and industrial water supply. 

“While the main stem of the Yellowstone River is free of reservoirs and major dams, reservoirs on tributaries and withdrawals for irrigation have a measurable effect on Yellowstone River streamflows,” said Katherine Chase, USGS hydrologist and co-author of the fact sheet. 

The effects of water-use are minimal where the Yellowstone River leaves Yellowstone Lake in the National Park and gradually increase downstream to Billings.  Downstream from Billings, the effects of development are much more pronounced. 

The USGS and other Federal and state agencies have measured streamflows since the late 1800s at sites throughout the Yel­lowstone River Basin. Streamflows in the spring and summer are typically lower than natural because of reservoir operations and irriga­tion diversions. Conversely, in the fall and winter, streamflows are higher than natural when water is released from irrigated fields or a reservoir upstream.

The fact sheet highlights findings from four published reports by the USGS and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council, which describe analyses of streamflows at selected sites in the Yellowstone River Basin.

“These reports are helping us understand the collective effect of a wide variety of human activities on streamflows in the river, and how these changes are affecting flood-plain extents, fish habitat, and water quality,” said Tiffany Vanosdall, Project Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Yellowstone River Conservation District Council is producing a Cumulative Effects Study describing how development on Yellowstone River affects biology, hydrology, and socioeconomics. Streamflow information is a critical component of the Cumulative Effects Study which will be used to promote wise use and conservation of the Yellowstone River’s natural resources.

“The Cumulative Effects Study will provide a framework for restoration projects on the Yellowstone, as well as an approach to management on a river that is 95 percent privately owned,” said Don Youngbauer, Chairman of the YRCDC.

Copies of fact sheet, “Effects of Water-Resource Development on Yellowstone River Streamflow, 1928–2002” are available online.