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

A man stands along dry shoreline at Scofield Reservoir on Aug. 27. The reservoir, now at 22% full, is an example of the 34 "conservation pools" that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has.

A man stands along dry shoreline at Scofield Reservoir on Aug. 27. The reservoir, now at 22% full, is an example of the 34 "conservation pools" that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's ongoing drought factored in all sorts of changes and conservation efforts in 2021.

As public officials urged residents to consume less water, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources urged anglers to consume more fish. The fishing limits were increased at several dozen different bodies of water across the state this year, including at all 57 of the division's community ponds for a period during the summer.

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

At the same time, the division purchased enough water that they have to keep fish species alive in many places even during one of the state's driest years. It's a strategic idea called a conservation pool and it's something that dates back a little over 80 years in Utah.

A conservation pool is a reservoir of which the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has at least some water rights. Division officials say these water rights are just enough water to allow for a "sufficient" fishery. It's much the same with agencies, farmers, ranchers or residents that may have some claim to a body of water in the state for a certain use.

There are currently 34 of these pools across Utah totaling over 40,000-acre-feet of water. The state's first conservation pool was established in 1940 at Yankee Meadows Reservoir located northeast of Brian Head in Iron County, according to the division.

"We call these 'conservation pools' because the purpose of our water rights is literally to conserve and save the fish in that reservoir when water levels are low," said Randy Oplinger, the sportfish coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, in a statement Monday.

"We try to purchase enough water so that in drought conditions, there will still be enough water to keep fish alive," he added. "Scofield, Sand Hollow, Minersville and Pelican Lake are some examples of waterbodies where we have conservation pools."

Conservation pools played a key role in the state this year and often do in years where water supplies are limited, Oplinger explained. Having conservation pools allows for wildlife biologists to ensure many bodies of water aren't completely dry during the driest years. Some federal agencies and groups that work with the DWR also own conservation pools in Utah.

Division officials said they don't have a stake in all of Utah's bodies of waters because water is a limited resource in the state. Some bodies of water contain enough water consistently that there's no need for conservation pools. For instance, Flaming Gorge Reservoir remains at about 80% capacity even after this year's drought.

They added the division is still looking to expand more conservation pools "as needed" in the future, especially if the future ends up as dry as 2021 was for reservoirs.

"While water rights are limited and only occasionally become available, we will continue to purchase more conservation pools in the future, when possible and necessary," Oplinger said. "Due to disease concerns and state law, we can't move fish from a depleted waterbody to another waterbody, so these conservation pools are a great tool to help save fish during low water years."

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