By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — A late start on snow plowing isn’t the only setback Yellowstone National Park will suffer this season as a result of automatic spending cuts. Park officials announced Monday that budgetary restrictions on water use would curtail eruptions at Old Faithful Geyser.
Famous around the world for its regular eruptions timed approximately every 90 minutes, Old Faithful is the most popular attraction in America’s first national park.
But in an effort to save up to $150,000 toward a total of $1.75 million in cuts required under the Congressional sequestration budget deal, the geyser’s eruption schedule will be reduced for the first time since the signing of an interstate water compact in 1892. Other thermal features in the park will also be scaled back.
Park officials have not yet released a final plan for how budget cuts will affect eruptions, but an internal Interior Department memo leaked last week suggests that summer tourists may see as few as three Old Faithful eruptions per day, with none after nightfall.
The move has sparked outrage in gateway communities around the park, as well as among some park advocates across the country. Park managers say they have little flexibility in how they must implement the across-the-board spending cuts mandated by Congress.
“This is certainly not the first choice of how we would like to handle this situation, and we recognize the impact this may have on visitors and local businesses,” said Yellowstone Park spokesman Stan Thatch during a conference call Monday.
“But our first priority is always to protect the resources of the park. Limiting the flow of water into Old Faithful and other non-essential thermal features is one of the few ways we have to save money without reducing services or producing adverse ecological impacts,” he said.
Because most wildlife do not drink from thermal waters due to high temperatures and unfavorable water chemistry, reducing water flows would be unlikely to harm the park’s animal populations, Thatch said.
Other options were also under consideration, Thatch said, including lower and less frequent eruptions at dozens of backcountry geysers that are seldom seen by most park visitors.
Formed as a result of a permeable aquifer situated over a volcanic hot-spot, Old Faithful’s regular 90-minute eruption intervals have been slowing and becoming less predictable over the last several decades. The slowing is a natural process resulting from a gradual cooling of the magma chamber located deep below the famous geyser, said Yellowstone geologist Hart Hadley.
“The eruptions have become even more erratic in recent years as a result of scarce groundwater due to less precipitation and higher median annual temperatures,” Hadley said. “So now, it’s sadly a case of climate change making a bad situation worse.”
Some local elected officials and tourism industry leaders accused park managers of “playing politics” with Old Faithful’s water supply in an effort to make the effects of the sequester more painful to the public.
“Here we go again. First it was the snowplows, now it’s Old Faithful. Is nothing sacred?” said Wyoming Rep. Teetrick Huddleton (R-Cody.). “It’s clear the federal government is not interested in solving problems, but in creating them. And also then not solving the newly created problems they just created.”
A group of West Yellowstone, Mont. business owners announced Monday that they would be seeking an injunction in federal court against the proposed eruption reductions, saying the effect on tourism in the gateway town would be severe.
“This is the equivalent of water-boarding an entire community, and it’s not something we’re going to lay down and sit still for,” said Karen Finderman, owner of the Geyser Blessing Tea and Coffee Emporium.
Finderman said West Yellowstone was a tourist town that relied on a steady stream of visitors on their way to and from Old Faithful’s eruptions, and that slowing the geyser’s scheduled discharges would cost several millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue over the summer.
Initial discussions with the National Park Service seeking a way for gateway communities or the states of Montana and Wyoming to pay for the needed additional water had broken down after new protests from farmers, ranchers and other irrigators worried about limited water supplies and preferential treatment for tourism interests.
The Northern Rockies Watershed Compact of 1892 requires the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as the federal government, to pay into a trust fund used to cover the costs of dams, irrigation canals and other water infrastructure across the region, said Phil McCandliss, a law professor and water rights specialist at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Water usage, including surface water that recharges Old Faithful and other thermal features in the park, is released from a network of regional reservoirs on a cost-paid basis, he said. The park has approximately 500 geysers and more than 10,000 thermal features that draw water from the system.
While Yellowstone could expect to save $100,000 or more over the course of the summer by purchasing less water under the compact, McCandliss said, it would be the first time since 1892 that such a reduction was made for financial reasons.
Western way of life
Cindy Hicks, spokeswoman for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, said the federal government has a “responsibility to maintain Old Faithful and the other park attractions in a way that doesn’t wreck local economies, ruin summer vacations and disrupt our Western way of life.”
An Interior Department memo leaked Friday by the Microbial Preservation Council, an environmental group focused on rare and vulnerable micro-organisms, stated that a three-times-per-day eruption schedule at Old Faithful from May through October could save more than $145,000.
Cutting water flows entirely to the geyser and surrounding thermal features at night, when most park visitors are asleep, would “minimize the deleterious impacts in a way such that the general public would still have a reasonable chance each morning, noon and evening to see Old Faithful erupt,” said the unsigned memo.
“What is not addressed in that document—and what we haven’t gotten a good answer from the Park Service on yet, is what this means to the rare thermophiles, microbial mats and other fragile organisms in the Upper Geyser Basin,” said Terrence Rovak, spokesman for the Microbial Preservation Council.
Rovak said reducing water flows could “wreak untold havoc on an incalculable number” of rare or genetically novel microbes, some found only in Yellowstone. Irreparable harm could be done, he said, to multi-colored colonies of microbes that have grown up over several years in the park’s constant, free-flowing hot waters.
At issue is whether some of those micro-organisms qualify for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Rovak said his group would be filling a separate legal challenge to halt the water reduction plan.
Huddleton said he did not understand “why they keep pumping water through the dang geyser right now when it’s only the privileged Park Service employees who are around to see it.” Most roads in Yellowstone are currently closed for spring snow plowing.
Reducing flows now made more sense than doing so during the busier summer months, Huddlteton said.
Any flow reduction would require a public comment period of 30 days before publishing a notice in the Federal Register and promulgating a new rule, Thatch said, meaning that mid-May would be the soonest a reduced water flow schedule could be implemented.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].
UPDATE: Yes, as most of you quickly realized, this story posted on April 1 is an April Fools’ Day prank, just like last year’s April 1 story: Petition seeks return of Yellowstone jackalope to public lands around parks. But unlike last year, for this story, we initially approved only those comments that were either clueless or that played along with the joke. You know-it-all spoilsports who insisted on pointing out how smart you are and that it was April 1 and that the other commenters were fools did not get your comments approved until April 2. The fun was in watching the sincere (and trolling) comments pile up April 1.
This caused some consternation among many of you, including a few who submitted multiple comments trying to prove how smart you are when you didn’t see the first one (or two or five) comments show up in the feed. It also sparked a few outraged emails and even a distressed phone call from a seasonal concession worker who was quite worried about the geysers. Let’s hope he’s not employed as an interpretive geyser tour guide.
Thanks to all of you great commenters who played along with trolling quips of your own, such as: “I like the idea of shutting down the lower falls, but I think we need to keep the upper falls running,” and “We should organize a march through our parks protesting ungrateful hikers who have squandered our nation’s resources through selfish and expensive over-viewing of fragile natural wonders.”
And of course, thanks to everyone who shared this story on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. It brought thousands of new readers, most who knew a good prank when they saw one. For those who were taken in, the comments section is now closed, preserving your thoughts for posterity.