Federal budget cuts force Yellowstone Park to curtail Old Faithful eruptions

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park watch Old Faithful geyser erupt. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate)

Visitors to Yellowstone National Park watch Old Faithful geyser erupt. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate)

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.

Water deposits minerals in multiple layers in many of Yellowstone Park's unique thermal features. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate - click to enlarge)

Water deposits minerals in multiple layers in many of Yellowstone Park’s unique thermal features. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate – click to enlarge)

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.”


‘Playing politics’

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.

A sign in the Old Faithful Inn tells visitors of the approximate time to expect the next eruption of the famous geyser. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate - click to enlarge)

A sign in the Old Faithful Inn shows visitors the approximate time to expect the next eruption of the famous geyser. (Ruffin Prevost/Yellowstone Gate – click to enlarge)

“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.”

Researchers have used detailed genetic analyses to identify novel microbes found in the Norris Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park. (YNP photo)

A researcher takes samples of genetically novel microbes found in the Norris Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park. (YNP photo)

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 parksBut 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. 

91 thoughts on “Federal budget cuts force Yellowstone Park to curtail Old Faithful eruptions

  1. Pure politics. It’s been going on since the Park was established. How about we reduce the pensions of the the Park civil service employees and see if that makes a difference.

  2. Interesting that state politicians are concerned about the loss of tourism revenues from a less potent Old Faithful, but not from the loss of wolves to hunting and trapping. I can tell you that I won’t return to the park until the states institute buffer zones around it. Idiotic that they pander to hunters and haters when wolves bring them vastly more money.

    • Unless you have to live with the consequences of the wolf overpopulation you really should keep your comments to yourself until you learn the facts!

  3. When I first read the headline I thought it must be a headline for the onion. This is Truly the most rediculuos plan I have ever heard for cutting money and lays bare the political agenda of the Parks leadership. Seriously why are they “directing” water in ways that effect the parks features??? Why did they ever decide to permanently alter the water flows? This makes my head explode thinking about how hypocritical the parkservice is! Don’t pick up antlers in the park or even firewood as it “alters” the delicate “environment” of the park…But they will consider altering the surface water willy nilly to save money or to influence geyser eruptions to increase park visitorship. Why not increase the number of eruptions to increase visitors to raise entrance fees? This whole article makes me sick to my stomach. The attitudes permeating the parks leadership is beyond the pale. They should be ashamed of themselves first for altering the water system then for using it as an excuse for punishing the parks visitors! Great article I am simply dumbfounded by it!

  4. I’m sorry but this sounds like an April Fools joke to me! How can the politicos control Mother Nature and limit the number of Old Faithful’s eruptions? Doesn’t sound realistic or plausible to me!

  5. I agree with Alan! I thought this was a joke when I read the headline! This whole thing is truly absurd. I cannot believe it. Maybe more uninformed voters will start paying attention to what is going on in this country. We have Biden galavanting around Paris to a tune of Millions of dollars for a 2 day jaunt. The entire Obooba administration is doing everything for the sake of politics and not for what is best for the country. It all makes me sick!

  6. Perhaps they can use the money saved to pay for professional bison training. Maybe they can be trained to stay in the park so we don’t have to haze them back in anymore. Happy April 1st everyone!!

  7. I like the idea of shutting down the lower falls, but I think we need to keep the upper falls running.

    • Sure, everybody wants their waterfalls, but do you realize how much it takes to force all that water down all those waterfalls? Really the geysers and animals are a bargain by comparison.

  8. Apparently there are people who don’t understand what April 1st is. Great prank. I laughed the entire time. and thanks to all the comments for making it even better!

  9. Unfortunately they will also have to turn the heat down too… the water keeps the inside of the geysers cool. Is nothing sacred anymore???

  10. Obama is ruining this country! Why doesn’t the NPS just eliminate the wolves and the entire wolf administration. Yellowstone had a SURPLUS in 1994 before wolf introduction need I say more.

    • Agreed, Old Faithful is a national symbol, like spaghetti! Keep the steaming hole, get rid of the dogs!

  11. REALLY? SERIOUSLY??? Click on the link above for Wyoming Rep. Teetrick Huddleton. Does anyone remember what day it is today??? Or do you believe in last years article that there should be a petition to return the Yellowstone Jackalope to public lands around the Park?

  12. On this one of the wholiest days of the month, I am amazed at the responses, however, Jake is correct, we had a surplus of eruptions in 1994, yet now? Only 3 allowed per day?

  13. april fools joke perhaps?

    Old Faithful is a cone-type geyser. Since 2000 its intervals have varied from 44 to 125 minutes, with an average of about 90-92 minutes, its duration is 1 1/2 to 5 minutes and its height is 90 to 184 feet. The rangers say that 90% of their predictions are within +/- 10 minutes.
    Old Faithful was named by the Washburn expedition of 1870. They were impressed by its size and frequency. It is not the biggest or most regular geyser in Yellowstone but it is the biggest regular geyser. Furthermore, it has been erupting in nearly the same fashion throughout the recorded history of Yellowstone. Through the years, it has become one of the most studied geysers in the park. One result of this close observation is that the Park Rangers are able to predict its eruptions fairly accurately. This makes Old Faithful geyser one of the easiest geysers in Yellowstone to see.

  14. Attack responses from both the right and the left-Can neither side realize the date???

  15. The lack of snow the last two years across the interior of the park may be reducing the outflow of Yellowstone’s geyser basins, but there is also an upside. The sequestration effects on the snow plowing budget have been lessen by new plans to expect another very early and long fire season. Wild fires can be expected to clear the snow pack from park roads and open the interior this year for motor vehicles, sparing the need to plow the roads at all and saving taxpayers many 10’s of thousands of dollars. Good move by the federal government.

  16. You can’t all be this dense, can you? This is an obvious April Fool’s joke, and a poor one at that. It’s cool to write April Fools articles, but to bring people’s political opinions into it is lunacy. How this blog continues to get read is beyond me.

  17. I never thought the day would come when I see and hear so much stupidity from our goverment. How assinine. WTF

  18. April Fools! The real laugh here are the folks who actually think that this was a real article and were summarily enraged by the “thoughtless water manipulation by the park service.” Morons!

  19. Wake up people its Aril 1ST. Do we know what that is. Its not something the goverment can control, even though he thinks he is the King.

  20. Uhm. April Fool’s, I’m sure, guys….. No one controls the water to the thermal features….

  21. It shouldn’t be too hard to find the valve that controls the water to old faithful. Then we could go in and weld the thing in the open position. We might have alittle bit of a fight but I am sure that the park personnel would be willing to loan us the welder. Then we could run a small herd of elk into the area and then the wolves would act as guards so no one could go in and mess with the valve to try to shut it down. While we are at it if they come up with too much water, we need a govt pipeline to South Dakota so we can irrigate our hay ground. I sure am glad we have so many smart people around so we can come up with these brilliant answers I see here. Makes me think that they would do nicely if the were elected to office in Washington. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  22. Seriously one of the best April Fool’s gags I’ve seen all day. Well done! (At least I hope this is a gag…)

  23. Did everyone forget what today is? I have officially lost my faith in the human race. Sigh.

  24. We should organize a march through our parks protesting ungrateful hikers who have squandered our nations resources through selfish and expensive over-viewing of fragile natural wonders. I blame the kids these days with their Mentos and Diet Coke. They just have no respect for nature’s expulsions anymore.

  25. Hmm, it’s obvious that some people are trolling the comments, but I feel that there are a couple in there that actually think this is a real article. Look at a calendar…haha entertaining read!

  26. The NPS is going to curtail the eruptions of the geysers?????? Since when does the NPS have controls that comes from the center of the earth???? Good grief,people……..it’s APRIL FOOL’S DAY!!!!!!!! LMAO!! Surprised no one caught this!!!!!!!! :)

  27. Community advocacy is an important tool to fight political stupidity. Contact Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho legislators and express your frustration with the plan to reduce water flows. and ask your family, friends and neighbors to contact them too. BTW, wolves have re-established an ecological balance in Yellowstone and attract many visitors. Read Defenders of Wildlife!

  28. Way to go, Ruffin. You caught a few gullible (or dumb) people with your story. Happy April 1.

  29. Hey guys,

    Quit being dumb. It’s April fools, remember? The government doesn’t control the water flow into thermal features, they are naturally occurring instances and it would not “save money” to withhold water for any length of time, because Yellowstone is not spending money pumping water into geysers.

  30. …if the national park service would simply make the yogi hats brimless millions could be saved…

  31. Obama is NOT the only one in congress, nor the problem. I grew up in Yellowstone and I am so mad that everyone blames Obama. There have been many other politicians that have wanted to do stupid things in Yellowstone, like an interstate. DUH!
    If you are mad, then complain to the right people. Take action instead of giving blame. But your words are putting folks in the defensive mode and they are not wanting to hear you.

  32. My Thanks Go TO!!!!!!,John “I Never Met a TV Camera I Didn’t Like” Barrasso and Mike “I Got Mine” Enzi

  33. When I was a kid, we would go down to the Arnold drainage canal and look/fish for sucker fish. It would appear the Gazette has invented a new way to find suckers. Just curious, does any of the previous posters note the date today? One could complain that the Gazette shouldn’t partake of the frivolity of April Fools but all propaganda should be scrutinized for truth.

  34. I can not believe how gullible you people are, especially when you know what day it is…

  35. So… is there a delete button that one can push to remove their comments? I do believe, if there is, it will be fairly busy with all the commentators above if they could stop blowing their own smoke long enough to realize it’s April 1. Again. To repeat. April 1.

    To partially quote the sage Bugs Bunny… what a bunch of maroons.

  36. I heard the Cody Chamber is trying to get people to donate filled water bottles.

    The Chamber say they would need approximately 1 million 20oz bottles and 10 solar panels to ensure a “normal” eruption schedule.

  37. Please NEVER take this article and the priceless responses off the internet. Never, ever.

  38. These responses are as funny as this press release. April Fool everyone!

  39. What really bothers me are all the Elk Crossing signs. I don’t understand why they would direct the elk to cross in areas where the speed limit is over 40 MPH. This is extremely dangerous! They should direct the elk to cross in slower areas, like school zones, to protect motorists. I understand that we need to protect the animals, but I wrecked my car twice right near those elk signs. The damn Obama administration is more worried about animals than my Jeep!

  40. I don’t know how many of you were being serious when you read this, but check today’s date: April 1= April fools day.

  41. HaHa! April Fools! I don’t think they can control the eruptions! If they can do that, global warming should be easy to fix!

  42. I can not believe how gullible you people are, especially when you know what day it is…

  43. Plz, people! This has got to be an April Fool’s joke. How can anyone control the natural flow of a volcanic tunnel?

  44. This article was an April Fools day trick. Humans impact nature but they cannot control nature, they can try but that is all they can do. This is why we have National Parks in our country so that we can still enjoy seeing and enjoying natural “undisturbed” places in our country.

  45. We have lots of water in Connecticut. We could send you guys some if you want it. Some of it is a little salty and a little polluted because I got it out of Long Island Sound, but it’s still good for making things like geysers and stuff. Maybe we could have like a water fund raiser and everyone could send a bottle of water to the geyser?