How an idea from the 1940s enables biologists to keep Utah fish safe in drought years

A man stands on the arid coast of Scofield Reservoir on August 27th. The reservoir, now 22% full, is an example of the 34 “nature reserves” that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY – The ongoing drought in Utah sparked all sorts of changes and conservation efforts in 2021.

When officials urged residents to consume less water, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources urged anglers to consume more fish. Catch restrictions have been increased at several dozen different bodies of water across the state this year, including all 57 community ponds in the division for a period during the summer.

The reason for this, Utah wildlife biologists said at the time, is that there is less oxygen available for fish to survive at lower reservoir levels and warmer temperatures. Lower oxygen levels are linked to poor growth and potentially fatal diseases.

At the same time, the division bought enough water to keep fish species alive in many places, even in one of the driest years in the country. It’s a strategic idea called a nature reserve, which is a little over 80 years old in Utah.

A conservation basin is a reservoir for which the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources holds at least some water rights. Division officials say these water rights are just enough water to allow for “adequate” fishing. The situation is similar with authorities, farmers, ranchers or residents who are entitled to a body of water in the state for a specific use.

There are currently 34 of these pools across Utah, totaling over 40,000 acres of water. The state’s first conservation pool was established in 1940 at Yankee Meadows Reservoir, northeast of Brian Head in Iron County, the department said.

“We call these ‘nature reserves’ because the purpose of our water rights is literally to conserve and save the fish in this reservoir when the water level is low,” Randy Oplinger, sport fish coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said in a statement Monday.

“We try to buy enough water so that in a drought there is enough water to keep the fish alive,” he added. “Scofield, Sand Hollow, Minersville, and Pelican Lake are some examples of bodies of water we have reservoirs in.”

Conservation pools played a key role in the state this year, and often do so in years when water supplies are limited, Oplinger said. With conservation pools, wildlife biologists can ensure that many bodies of water are not completely dry in the driest years. Some federal agencies and groups that work with the DWR also own nature reserves in Utah.

Division officials said they are not involved in all of Utah’s waters because water is a finite resource in the state. Some bodies of water consistently contain enough water that conservation basins are not required. For example, the Flaming Gorge Reservoir is still around 80% full even after this year’s drought.

They added that the department remains committed to expanding more conservation basins “as needed” in the future, especially when the future turns as dry as 2021 for reservoirs.

“While water rights are limited and only occasionally available, we will buy more protection basins in the future if possible and necessary,” said Oplinger. “Due to disease concerns and federal laws, we cannot move fish from one depleted body of water to another, so these conservation basins are a great tool for saving fish during years of low water.”

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