By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
Water developers are seeking $1.2 million in federal funds to advance a much-debated 280-foot high dam and reservoir proposed in the Little Snake River drainage in Carbon County.
The plan to impound 10,000 acre feet of water on the West Fork of Battle Creek barely survived a legislative roadblock earlier this year when the Wyoming House stripped $40 million from a water bill that had been earmarked for the project. A compromise with the Senate saw $4.7 million in appropriations restored, but with caveats requiring further legislative approval for expenditures and pro-rata financial participation from potential beneficiaries in Colorado.
Dam backers are not for the moment returning to Wyoming’s financial well. Neither of two draft 2019 water bills that propose more than $28 million for water planning and development statewide include funding for the project, according to a review of draft bills posted online. But two water districts — one in Colorado and one in Wyoming — are asking for a total of $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct environmental reviews of the dam and reservoir that would be constructed in the Medicine Bow National Forest, officials say.
Meantime, dam backers failed to win full-throated support for the $80 million project from a water coalition in Northern Colorado. Instead, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable said they supported further evaluation of the proposed dam, but not yet construction of the facility itself (see letter below).
Dam backers also must figure out whether Wyoming and Colorado’s new governors — both of whom were elected in November — will support the project and to what degree. Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said he continues to work with his counterpart in Colorado to obtain support and money but the election means dam backers have to undertake a new round of lobbying.
“Every time there’s a new governor, all those conversations start over,” he said in a telephone interview.
To build Colorado support, Wyoming officials took members of the Colorado roundtable on a tour of the dam site and surrounding area last summer. LaBonde drafted a letter of support that the Colorado group could consider signing its name to in late November, group chairman Jackie Brown said. “We require[d] that,” she said of the draft correspondence.
It proposed that the roundtable, a coalition of water users that includes irrigators, municipal interests, and recreation representatives, write the following; “We would like to offer this letter of support for the project and look forward to working with your office to continue to move this project forward for the mutual benefit of water users in both states.”
LaBonde’s version stated that the project would have $92 million in benefits. It said the Wyoming Legislature has already appropriated $11.3 million to build the dam and that Colorado irrigators could have a chance to buy some of the stored water. The $11 million figure comes from a $7 million planning appropriation, very little of which was used, plus the conditional $4.7 million appropriation earlier this year.
“As the project is currently configured approximately 4,000 – 5,000 acres of irrigated lands in Colorado would be potentially eligible to purchase supplemental irrigation water from the project,” LaBonde’s draft said.
The Colorado roundtable adopted most of the proposed language. But “the group stopped short of supporting the project,” LaBonde said, backing an investigative process only.
“At our November 14th meeting, the Roundtable unanimously approved the support for the process of reviewing a reservoir at the west fork of Battle Creek,” the final roundtable letter, dated Nov. 27, reads. “The membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration, as approval of a reservoir would need to come before the membership in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”
The roundtable also dropped proposed language that stated it “would like to continue … identifying other funding opportunities for this project.” Instead, the Colorado group said it “supports the development of water resource in the basin and would be happy to work with local water users in Colorado and Wyoming and the State of Wyoming.”
NEPA requires examination of impacts, benefits and a range of alternatives before major federal actions are undertaken. Toward that end, the Pot Hook Water Conservancy District in Colorado and the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District in Wyoming jointly applied for a federal grant to begin an environmental analysis of the dam, the reservoir and their effects. LaBonde said one application for the funds has been rejected and that the groups anticipate filing a second request.
Pat O’Toole, a farmer, rancher and former Wyoming state legislator whose Ladder Ranch straddles the Wyoming-Colorado state line downstream of the proposed impoundment, said a new application would likely be filed “sometime this winter.” An advocate of water storage and landscape and wildlife conservation partnerships, O’Toole was a member of the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission, is a director of Partners for Conservation and the President of the Family Farm Alliance.
As for Colorado’s rewrite of LaBonde’s draft letter of support, he said he was not disappointed, despite its shortcomings.
“I think it’s fine,” he said. No commitments for pro-rata funding from Colorado were secured, as sought by the Legislature, he said, because “we didn’t ask for it.”
The proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek would serve 67 to 100 irrigators, studies commissioned by the Water Development Office say. The most likely beneficiaries in Colorado would appear to be members of the Pot Hook Water Conservancy District that joined the Savery-Little Snake district in applying for the $1.2 million federal grant.
That district appears to be relatively small. In 2017 it held a successful election to impose a four-mill property tax that would raise $12,831.48 in 2018, and similar amounts in subsequent years. The tax money will “meet the future needs of landowners within the district” and “proactively protect … existing water rights,” according to a description of the measure. It passed on a 13-7 vote.
O’Toole agreed with LaBonde that the fresh administrations in Cheyenne and Denver will require a renewed effort securing support — support that backers couldn’t find in their home House of Representatives. “I’m going to watch and see who gets picked for positions and go from there,” O’Toole said.
Among the considerations is the announced retirement of Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell who has held the cabinet-level position since 2001. A gubernatorial appointee who’s considered the state’s water czar, his office resolves conflicts among users and represents Wyoming during inter-state negotiations. When Tyrrell retires in January, he will have served under four governors.
Meantime, conditions in the Little Snake River Basin are deteriorating, O’Toole said, as a 19-year-drought is forcing water users to plan for shortages. “We saw the [Little Snake] River in a state I’ve never seen,” he said. This summer, for the first time ever, there was a call for regulation on Colorado’s Yampa River as water users asked state regulators to enforce prior appropriation doctrine and law. Those ensure that during low flows the holders of earlier water rights get their allocation before holders of more recent rights can divert river flows.
West Fork Dam supporters want a land exchange that would give Wyoming some 100 acres of federal property in the Medicine Bow National Forest to construct the proposed dam and impound the reservoir. Such a deal would exempt the project from some aspects of the demanding NEPA process, likely making it easier to accomplish. So far, the federal agency hasn’t received any formal requests for development, forest spokesman Aaron Voos said in a telephone interview from forest headquarters in Laramie.
“I know there’s a lot of exploratory things happening as far as funding,” Voos said. “We still do not have a proposal for a reservoir. We don’t have any official stance.”
Conversations between water developers and the federal agency have included topics such as what the impoundment would look like, what kinds of surveys would take place, what could be done about the ongoing pollution caused by an abandoned mine and whether a land exchange could advance the project.
“They’ve been picking our brain informally about that,” Voos said. “We actually never made any formal recommendation to them.”
The forest would be deeply involved if the proposed dam were constructed on federal property. If Congress engineered a land exchange, however, in which Wyoming would obtain and control the property, “our involvement would be less,” he said.
Project skeptics in the Wyoming House have criticized the price of the proposed West Fork Dam, the small number of irrigators it would serve, and the scant number of new acres it would irrigate, among other things. Benefits of the $80 million investment include late-season irrigation and flexible water management to boost fisheries.
O’Toole disagrees and lists bountiful improvements that would accrue to the environment and economy from a new impoundment. “It’s good for the valley,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s crucial.”
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