In 1974, Reclamation established interim operating criteria for Flaming Gorge Dam to enhance fishing, fish spawning, and boating. In 1979, Reclamation began releasing water through a multi-level outlet structure to provide warmer water for the downstream fishery.
On February 27, 1980, the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) requested consultation under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act regarding projects under construction, and for the continued operation of all existing Reclamation projects in the Upper Colorado River Basin (including the Colorado River Storage Project). Formal consultation on operation of Flaming Gorge Dam was initiated on March 27, 1980. Reclamation is the lead agency for the consultation, with Western Area Power Administration becoming a party in 1991.
Coincident with its request for consultation on the operation of Reclamation projects in the Upper Colorado River Basin, the Service issued a Final Biological Opinion for the Strawberry Aqueduct and Collection System, a major feature of the Central Utah Project, on February 27, 1980. The biological opinion determined that Strawberry Aqueduct Collection System flow depletions from the Duchesne and Green Rivers would likely jeopardize the continued existence of the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub. The biological opinion included a reasonable and prudent alternative (RPA) to avoid continued jeopardy to the endangered fish. The RPA was that Flaming Gorge Dam and Reservoir would compensate for those depletions and would be operated for the benefit of the endangered fish in conjunction with its other authorized programs.
The Service rendered other biological opinions for the Upalco, Jensen, and Uinta Units of the Central Utah Project during the late 1970's and early 1980's, that all relied on the operation of Flaming Gorge Dam to provide flows for endangered fishes. Recent biological opinions for the Duchesne River Basin, Narrows Project, Price-San Rafael Salinity Control Project, and other water development related projects in the Colorado River Basin also rely on the operation of Flaming Gorge Dam to provide flows for endangered fishes.
However, because information related to the habitat requirements for the endangered fishes was unavailable, issuance of a final biological opinion by the Service for the operation of Flaming Gorge Dam was delayed until data collection and studies could be completed and used to recommend specific flows in the Green River downstream from the dam.
Dam operations were initially evaluated for potential effects on endangered fishes from 1979 to 1984. Releases from the dam were modified from 1985 to 1991 to benefit endangered fishes and allow summer flow regimes in the Green River that could be tested and evaluated.
In 1987, the Recovery Implementation Program for Endangered Fish Species in the Upper Colorado River Basin (Recovery Program) was initiated. The goals of the Recovery Program are to protect and recovery the endangered fish species of the Upper Colorado River Basin so that they no longer need protection by the Endangered Species Act. The states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah; Reclamation, Western Area Power Administration, and the Service; and environmental, water and power user organizations, are all participants in the Recovery Program.
Under the Recovery Program, there are five key elements needed to recover the endangered fish species:
- Habitat management
- Habitat development/maintenance
- Native fish stocking
- Non-native species and sport fish management
- Research, data management, and monitoring
The operation of Flaming Gorge Dam is essential to successful implementation of two of these five elements: habitat management and habitat development/maintenance. Operation of the dam is one of many management actions described in the Recovery Action Plan. Implementation of all Recovery Action Plan activities are expected to recover the endangered fish.
Using biological tests and evaluations conducted from 1979 to 1991, the Service issued a biological opinion on the operation of Flaming Gorge Dam on November 25, 1992. That opinion stated that the current (1992) operation of Flaming Gorge Dam was likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the endangered fish in the Green River. The opinion also described elements of an RPA that, in the opinion of the Service, would offset jeopardy to the endangered fishes. The RPA required:
- Refinement of the operation of Flaming Gorge Dam so that flow and temperature regimes of the Green River more closely resembled historic conditions.
- Conducting a five-year research program including implementation of winter and spring research flows, beginning in 1992, to allow for potential refinement of flows for these seasons. The research program was to be based on the "Five-year Flaming Gorge Flow Recommendations Investigations" which was approved by the Recovery Program. The research program was to provide for annual meetings to refine seasonal flows based on research findings and water year forecasts. Except for specific research flows during the five-year research program, year-round flows in the Green River were to resemble a natural hydrograph described under element one of the RPA.
- Determination of the feasibility and effects of releasing warmer water during the later spring/summer period and investigation of the feasibility of retrofitting river bypass tubes to include power generation, thereby facilitating the higher spring releases.
- Legal protection of Green River flows from Flaming Gorge Dam to Lake Powell.
- Initiation of discussions with the Service after conclusion of the five-year research program to examine further refinement of flows for the endangered Colorado River fish.
In 1992 the Recovery Program in cooperation with Reclamation initiated the five-year research program to refine the flow and temperature recommendations to meet the requirements of the 1991 biological opinion. The five-year research program was largely completed by 1996, though some additional information continued to be collected through 1999 on the effects of flood flows that occurred in 1997 and 1999. All available data was analyzed in a synthesis report funded by the Recovery Program that provided refined flow and temperature recommendations stipulated in the 1991 Biological Opinion on the Operation of Flaming Gorge Dam. The synthesis report (Flow and Temperature Recommendations for Endangered Fishes in the Green River Downstream of Flaming Gorge Dam) was finalized during July 2000 and provides the basis for Reclamation's proposed action in and for ESA Section 7 consultation among Reclamation, Western, and the Service.