Office of External Affairs
Mountain-Prairie Region


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mountain-Prairie Region
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

April 8, 2008

Contacts: Gary Erickson 701-768-2548
                Tom Pabian 701-468-5467


Water Levels at Lake Darling Expected to Drop


Due to the effects of past and projected drought conditions throughout the Souris River Basin, water levels at Lake Darling could drop as low as 1,588 feet this summer, which is 8-9 feet below normal. This would be one of the lowest levels the lake has experienced for many years, comparable to the drought levels of the early 1990s. The lake is currently at 1,592 in elevation.


Current spring runoff projections into Lake Darling are only about 7,000 acre feet, compared to the long term annual average of about 98,000 acre feet. As water is released from Lake Darling to meet the needs of senior water right holders, provide the necessary flows to Manitoba, Canada, and maintain wetland habitat at J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the level of Lake Darling is expected to dip significantly.  If drought conditions do not improve, the elevation of the lake could drop another foot or more during the summer due to evaporation alone.


“If we don’t see any relief from current drought conditions, it will affect the fishing public who use the lake.  Some boat ramps will become unusable and favorite fishing spots may not be accessible.  Potential fish kills due to oxygen depletion are also a possibility.” said Tom Pabian, Upper Souris NWR Manager.  “However, in managing the lake, we must meet our legal obligations to downstream users, and the Congressional purpose of the lake which is to provide downstream waterfowl habitat.”


Upper Souris NWR and Lake Darling were established by Congress in the 1930s to provide habitat for wildlife, in particular migratory birds, and as a source of water during dry conditions for the J. Clark Salyer NWR located downstream.  In 2007, the Service decided to allow two of the five marshes at the J. Clark Salyer NWR to go dry, emulating a natural process in anticipation of an average spring runoff for 2008 to refill those marshes.  Given the unusually dry conditions this year, managers at the refuge say they will allow two other large marshes to go dry this summer.  However, they say water will still be needed this year to refill the other marshes and provide for critical habitat for migratory birds.


“Given how dry the area is this year, we’ve really looked for ways to mimic natural drought processes to restore vegetation that benefits waterfowl and other wildlife.  In fact, we’ve reduced our water request to about one third of our original plans,” said Gary Erickson, J. Clark Salyer NWR Manager.  “We expect Lake Darling will still need to release around 14,000 acre feet, though, to support these minimal wetland needs.”


Through an international agreement, the U.S. also must provide for flows in the Souris River entering Manitoba, Canada, from June through October that amount to a little over 6,000 acre feet in total each year.  Lake Darling is a key source of water for meeting that obligation.  This same agreement also allows Canada to retain half of the water in the Souris River system before it enters the U.S.  While this can provide valuable flood protection during high water years, during a drought it can reduce the amount of water available for use in the U.S.


The water released from Lake Darling will also include between 5,000 and 6,000 acre feet to meet obligations to senior water right holders downstream.


“On the bright side, when Lake Darling filled after being so low in the early 1990s, the fisheries rebounded with a fury and the lake became a choice destination for literally thousands of anglers,” said Pabian.  “Until then, we’re just glad we still have the water to support so much of the critically important waterfowl habitat in the area.”


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