White River Basin Water Releases: A guide to understanding how these rivers ‘work’
I really feel badly for those few anglers who take a dream fly fishing trip to the Ozarks without bothering to learn about the significance of power generation beforehand. The system can seem crazy and somewhat overwhelming to the uninitiated, and even longtime White River Basin veterans can become perplexed by the mysterious nature of these rivers.
Although it is impossible to predict water releases 100% of the time, by gaining a greater understanding of how the whole system works, savvy anglers can use tools and simple observation to make educated guesses regarding what may happen in the future. This may not be helpful to those who live a long distance from the rivers, but anglers who are in the position to get away at the spur of the moment will find that a little bit of knowledge can go a long way in finding dream fly fishing conditions.
The priorities of the Corp of Engineers
White River Basin dams are controlled and operated by the US Army Corp of Engineers. The original intention of these projects was to prevent seasonal flooding in an effort to spare property, crops and lives from the damage caused by excessive high water. For this reason, flood control is the number one priority when it comes to managing water releases. During drought years, the focus shifts to water conservation and storage, so prolonged low water is also a possibility when the weather gets dry. Power production is the next priority, and after that, “lowly” recreational concerns are considered – very rarely will flows be adjusted purely for the fisheries or anglers, but there have been notable exceptions to this rule.
Each lake in the White River System has a “power pool” elevation, and this level represents the line between high and low water in the reservoirs. If the lakes rise above power pool, the first response from the Corp of Engineers will be to minimize flooding by curtailing releases, but once the downstream flood threat subsides, releases will be heavy and steady until the lake drops back to normal levels. If the reservoirs are below power pool, generation will often be limited to times of high power demand, and there will be days where the dams stay quiet. Learning the significance of the power pool levels of each lake is helpful in determining if there is even a chance at low water.
Follow the trends
There are so many other scenarios that can affect water releases on the tailwaters in the White River Basin besides just reservoir levels, so it is important to study the prevailing generation trends when trying to predict likely conditions. Power can be sold months in advance, so there are days when flows will be high for no apparent reason, and the Corp is known for doing many strange things at the dam that make little sense. Always expect the unexpected.
Weather plays a huge role in how much power needs to be generated. Generally, when temperatures are below 35-degrees or above 85-degrees to the south and west of the Ozarks, expect electricity to be generated for heat or cooling during the most extreme portion of the day. At times, releases will occur like clockwork, but there is no telling exactly when a trend is about to change or die.
During the summer, heavy water will usually be released in the afternoons, and on cold days, expect high flows to start early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with a respite during the middle of the day. The best seasons to find prolonged periods of daytime low water are during the winter and fall. Low water in the spring is somewhat less common, but it can happen if the lakes are below power pool. Most anglers prefer low water for accessibility reasons, and there is a definite art form to consistently being at the right place at the right time in an effort to take advantage of ideal conditions.
Making use of data and predictions
There are several informational resources on the Internet that can help prospective Ozark fly anglers determine current conditions and predict future releases. The Corp of Engineers operates an extensive Web site that offers real-time reports and historical data. This is the site I use to see what the current release trends look like and it is also helpful in gauging runoff in the tributaries.
The Southwest Power Administration, power brokers for the Corp of Engineers, releases a daily “estimated” generation schedule on their site. Recently, it seems that a fair number of locals are relying heavily on this information, but that can end up being a mistake. This schedule is meant to be used as a very loose guide that gives a tad bit of insight into what the Corp is ‘thinking’, but keep in mind that it is not correct most of the time.
Even though the Corp of Engineer’s entire method of operation on the White River Chain can be quite confusing at first, this enigma is one of the main reasons that these fisheries are so interesting. Very few days are exactly the same and constantly changing conditions offer up a unique challenge in the world of fly fishing. If you are considering visiting to Ozarks for the purpose of chasing trout with a fly rod, it is a good idea to start learning the ins and outs of the system before you come; this way, you will at least have a general idea of what to expect and you will know a bit about how water releases affect the fishing. There are few more exciting places to trophy trout fish than the White River Basin and fluctuating water levels definitely add an exciting dimension to the thrill.