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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah wildlife officials are once again thinking about the drought as they prepare for the oncoming fishing rush.
That's why they say they plan to be selective in where and how they stock fish this year, with state reservoirs below average and declining confidence in streamflow ahead of the summer.
"The number of fish in these waters is lower this year than it was at the same time last year, due to last year's drought, fish stocking changes and the temporary harvest limit increases we implemented," Randy Oplinger, the sportfish coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said in a statement Monday.
The division's decision comes after Gov. Spencer Cox issued an emergency declaration regarding the drought last week, citing low reservoirs, low runoff and persistently dry conditions. The state's reservoirs are close to 60% full at the moment.
Utah's statewide snowpack also improved some from a spring storm that added 0.4 inches to the statewide snowpack, which entered this week at 74% of normal. There are still 7.8 inches left in the snowpack left to melt, which is about 2.8 inches of water below normal.
The U.S. Drought Monitor currently lists about 44% of the state in an extreme drought, while over 99% of the state is listed as being in at least a severe drought.
But some reservoirs will be better off than others this year. There are over a dozen reservoirs at 61% or above capacity at the moment, and even those below 60% now will perform well for fish this summer.
What Utah wildlife officials are trying to determine is how many fish they should add to each body of water in the state. The point is to provide as much of a good fishing experience as possible before the water reaches a "critical level," Oplinger explained.
It helps avoid what happened last year, when water levels got so low the Utah DWR increased the number of fish people could take from community ponds and multiple reservoirs suffered the most. Those limits were increased because lower water tends to warm faster and holds less oxygen than fish need to survive and thrive.
"The best management action we can take at these water bodies is to reduce the number of fish in these waters; because when water levels are low, we are more likely to maintain a fishery that has fewer fish than one that has a lot of fish," Oplinger said.
The stocking of fish is already underway using this approach.
Take Jordanelle Reservoir, for instance. Division experts began pouring about 19,000 rainbow trout into the reservoir last week even though it's only half-full. There's still 160,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir, and it's located in one of the parts of the Provo-Utah Lake-Jordan basins with snowpack levels a bit closer to average.
It's a much better situation than, say, Gunnison Reservoir, which remains 3% full at the moment after hitting zero by early July last year.
The division currently has no plans to revisit last year's limit increase but will reevaluate in June, after the spring runoff is completed and Utah heads into what is typically its driest season.
"We are hopeful that anglers will catch and harvest most, if not all, of (the) stocked fish by the time water levels become so low that fish survival is impacted," Oplinger said.
At the same time, division officials said Monday they are looking for more long-term solutions to the fish stocking process. This could include stocking more warm-water fish species, adjusting the time period when fish are stocked, making seasonal fishing regulation changes, and buying more water rights to drought-impacted fisheries when possible.