Water Levels – An Explanation

What are the White River Levels going to do?

What ARE the levels on the White River going to do?  You have no idea how many times I get asked this question…  Sometimes I’m sure it seems like water generation patterns from our dams are completely random…

But, they’re not.  There are just a lot of factors, often in opposition to one another.  Rainfall can’t be predicted.  Variances are applied for and granted for events on specific days.  The farther into the future you try to predict any complex pattern, the more detail you lose; just like in a weather forecast, folks.  Which is more accurate — the 3-day or the 10-day forecast?

But you will be able to make some reasonable generalizations after you read this…  it’s really not black magic or voodoo!  It will be sort of like making generalizations that it’s more likely to be hot in July than in December. I want to talk about  the primary decision-making element that affects water releases — the 1998 Water Control Plan the US ACE uses as a general guideline.

Will understanding this plan enable you to know if the water’s going to be at 0 generators at 5:00 AM tomorrow, and turn on to 3 generators at 10:30 AM?  Sorry!  It sure won’t.  In this blog, I’m going to be talking “big picture”, here.

On Bull Shoals, the target lake level is 654′ above sea level.  (No, Bull Shoals Lake is not actually that deep…)  When it’s above that level, the US ACE is in control.  Their job?  Get rid of that excess water.  And they use the 1998 Water Control Plan to guide them.  It’s not as simple as “run the water until it gets down to 654′”.

There are 3 major factors involved — the season, the current level of the Newport water gauge, and the combined 4-lake capacity of the flood-control pool, as measured above their target levels.

I call the Newport Gauge the “trump card”, because if it wasn’t for the considerations based on the current levels of this gauge, the flows of the White River would be much more predictable.  Managing river levels to the Newport gauge is done to protect farming interests down river.

So, what is this plan all about?  Basically, it dictates different release rules when crops are either more or less likely to be damaged.  This is a summary:

  • Dec 1 – April 14 — the Newport gauge is regulated to 21 ft., except if a natural rise exceeding that occurs, then they can regulate to 24 ft.
  • April 15 – May 7 — the Newport gauge is regulated to 14 ft., with the exception of regulating to 21 ft. from April 15 through April 30, or 18 feet from May 1 through May 14 only if the 4-lake system exceeds 50% full.   (Click the Lake Forecast  http://www.swl-wc.usace.army.mil/pages/reports/remote/lakfcst.htm to get the current 4-lake system %.)
  • May 8 – November 30 — the Newport gauge is regulated to 12 ft., with the exception of regulating to 14 ft. from May 15 through November 30 if the 4-lake system flood storage exceeds 70% full.
  • Special circumstances and requests for variance are also defined.

OK, How about a practical example to make this more meaningful to you?

Example 1:

  • It’s April 20th, so we’re trying to regulate to 14 ft. on the Newport gauge.
  • The 4-lake system is below 50% for this example.
  • The Bull Shoals Lake level, for whatever reason, has risen to 657′ in our example.  That’s 3 ft. above pool.
  • The Newport gauge is currently below 14′.


All other things being equal, Bull Shoals is going to release as much water as they can until that gauge hits 14′, and they get the Bull Shoals Lake level back down to 654′.

So far, so good.  Now, let’s say it starts raining.  Crooked Creek & Buffalo, and all the other feeder creeks above this gauge start raising the water level.  Guess what happens then?  Bull Shoals shuts off, or throttles back accordingly.

What if we had this exact scenario, but the 4-lake system was above 50% instead of below?  Bull Shoals would run to manage to 21′ instead of 14′, and then throttle back accordingly to try and get the Bull Shoals Lake level down to 654′.

(Don’t forget if Bull Shoals is above pool, Norfork probably is, too.  Water will have to be dropped in that lake as well, and they’ll bounce back and forth with generation between the two lakes to do it.)

This is a rather simplistic scenario, to be sure.  But if you take the time to read the plan, and study that chart, it will make it a little more meaningful to you!

What if the 4 lake system is below 0%?  (That means all 4 lakes are at their target level or lower — 0% is in reference to the Flood Control, not that the lakes are empty.)  Well, the US ACE has then done their job, and gotten rid of the excess water.

Now control is in the hands of SWPA (Southwest Power Administration, a quasi-governmental agency which is part of the Department of Energy).  Unlike the Corps, whose job it was to get rid of that extra water, the job of SWPA is to make money with the water.  So, they won’t run it just for the sake of running it.  They’ll run water to generate power at peak demand times, when they can make the most profit.

(Side note:  In the past, their operational mandate has created situations of extended periods of “dead-low” water that have caused fish kills and has damaged the river, and why the Minimum Flow Initiative is so important.  Soon, these extended periods of dead-low water will be a thing of the past.)

So what does this mean for generation when SWPA has their finger on the button?  It means that they will abide by the same guidelines when they do release water, but they don’t have to release water.  When they’re in control, there’s often less generation on weekends than during the week, for example.

Read the 1998 Water Control Plan in full at http://www.swl-wc.usace.army.mil/pages/docs/White_River_Master_Manual.pdf.

For more information, and help understanding the other tools that are available regarding river flows, I have an entire web page dedicated to it at http://www.hisplaceresort.net/River-flow.htm.


I hope you find this useful and informative.  Tell me what you want to hear about!

Your White River Trout Diva
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