Cloud-seeding programs could increase the winter snowpack by provoking additional precipitation from certain storms. The goal is to augment normal spring runoff. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Lawmakers are set to review $29.5 million in water appropriations Friday including a potential fix for rural residents who believe a Gillette municipal supply project upset their domestic wells.

The Legislature’s Select Water Committee will mark up draft planning and construction bills, omnibus measures that incorporate more than 14 construction appropriations and a dozen planning outlays. The most expensive grant would be $7.5 million to the Green River-Rock Springs-Sweetwater County Joint Powers Water Board for a new pump station to serve Rock Springs north of Interstate 80.

The Rock Springs project would replace aging infrastructure and serve 5,400 taps. The existing pump station runs almost 24 hours a day on peak days and has no backup, according to information from the Water Development Office.

Other projects costing just over $1 million apiece would be funded in Buffalo, where new wells would be drilled, Etna, where a new storage tank would be constructed and in rural Park County, where pipelines would be built.

The omnibus water bills — one for construction and one for planning — are vetted by the appointed Wyoming Water Development Commission before review by the select water committee and are rarely extensively debated by the Legislature. Significant water funding accumulates from dedicated revenue streams, meaning such appropriations don’t usually compete head-to-head with other state projects for general funds.

Last year was an exception when the House stripped from an omnibus water bill $40 million earmarked for a proposed $80 million dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek. The proposed impoundment would be built on a tributary to the Little Snake River in Carbon County. The dam saw $4.7 million restored in a compromise. “It used to be that when we had an omnibus water bill hit the floor, somebody got shot if they amended it,” Sen. and State Treasurer-elect Curt Meier (R-Lagrange) joked during the debate.

Plan to drain 7 feet from New Fork lake

In Sublette County, the omnibus planning bill would appropriate $1.5 million for design and permitting of the New Fork Lake enlargement, an effort that would provide late-season water to 94 irrigators in the New Fork Irrigation District and produce additional incidental benefits. The measure is the first step in a process ultimately aimed at rebuilding the aging New Fork Lake Dam, a prospect that would cost an estimated $12.7 million. The rebuild would lower the reservoir’s outlet so an additional 7 feet could be drained from the water body at the edge of the Bridger Wilderness in the Wind River Range.

A water-office consultant investigated new water-storage sites and alternatives such as conservation measures, like lining ditches and converting from flood to sprinkler irrigation. The report found that conservation could supply an additional 11,200 to 24,500 acre-feet of water annually — well beyond the 6,700 acre-feet annual shortage that the New Fork Lake project intends to address. That led one official to say that “with conservation, you’ve got more water than with the enlargement.”

The existing New Fork Lake dam is old and in need of rehabilitation. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Officials at the water development office, however, say they are not in the business of lining canals or converting irrigation operations to more efficient methods. They have also questioned whether conservation would be practical.

Because the project is proposed on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, that agency has assembled a team to examine the proposal. The review under the National Environmental Policy Act may consider a range of alternatives, including conservation, Pinedale District Ranger Rob Hoelscher has said.

Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde is confident reconstruction will occur. “We’re optimistic we can create that enlargement,” he said in a telephone interview.

The existing dam is a few feet high and serves 14,613 acres in the irrigation district. The enlargement would add 9,400 acre-feet to what’s available to irrigators today.

Nearby, a test conservation project paid ranchers up to $200 an acre foot to temporarily forego late-season irrigation. Municipal water entities and other interests in the Colorado River Basin downstream of Wyoming funded the System Pilot Conservation Program. Over several years ending in 2018, Wyoming irrigators accepted $4 million and conserved 24,205 acre feet of water.

LaBonde said that kind of program which had been implemented on the western side of the Upper Green River Basin may not be acceptable to ranchers on the eastern edge of Sublette County.

“Those are decisions made by those irrigators,” he said of the two approaches to dealing with water shortages. New Fork irrigators are “looking well beyond a year [at] long-term ag production,” he said.

Cloud seeding wilderness areas

The bills seek more than $800,000 for the state’s share of cloud seeding operations in the Wind River, Medicine Bow, Sierra Madre and Laramie mountain ranges. In eastern Wyoming over the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre, weather modification will be done by airplane, including over wilderness areas.

Already this year there have been four cloud seeding events, LaBonde said. The construction bill requests $589,000 for next winter’s program.

The Water Development Office chose aerial operations in Eastern Wyoming after pilot ground-based operations on National Forest lands ran into bureaucratic and legal hold ups when the state sought to convert the test program to an operation.

The Medicine Bow National Forest allowed cloud-seeding generators on its property under a special-use permit for scientific research, LaBonde said. But the federal agency said a permit for a non-research program would have to undergo detailed scrutiny.

Experimental programs by federal researchers showed that water flows can be increased by cloud seeding. In Wyoming, cloud seeding targets mountains in four national forest wilderness areas. (National Center for Atmospheric Research)

“They were very concerned it would affect the ecology, [create] impacts to wilderness areas,” he said. “That could not be decided in the region. It had to be decided in [Washington,] D.C.”

The Medicine Bow is home to the Savage Run and Platte River wilderness areas. The Encampment River Wilderness and Huston Park Wilderness stretch across the high Sierra Madre. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines a wilderness area as one “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.”

Environmental reviews for ground generators “could have taken several years,” LaBonde said. That, plus the “flexibility” that aerial cloud seeding offered led the Water Development Office to seed clouds with aircraft. The program will spread silver iodide on ripe clouds over wilderness areas and other forest lands, LaBonde said.

Medicine Bow spokesman Aaron Voos said the state’s decision to use airplanes took his agency out of the picture. Because Wyoming will not occupy federal property, “we no longer have a regulatory role in that program,” he said. “Our regulatory role is on anything that would have been ground-based.”

Using airplanes also would allow Wyoming to seed clouds over the Laramie Range, funding permitting, and make excursions into Colorado. Work in Colorado would be done in conjunction with funding from that state.

Ground-based and aerial cloud seeding cost approximately the same, LaBonde said.

The Wind River Range cloud seeding uses ground-based generators, none of which are located on National Forest land. The draft bill seeks $235,000 for that program and contributions are expected from some states in the Colorado River Basin.

In proposing the funding, the Water Development Office estimates that the effort increases precipitation by 1.8 percent. “The cost per acre foot of additional runoff generated in the Green River Basin would then be $28.63, or approximately $29/acre-foot,” documents say.

LaBonde said the costs are derived from the best available science. “That’s an estimate as provided by the [National Center for Atmospheric Research] folks — some of the world’s leaders in weather modification,” he said. “It’s not something that’s easily measured or calculated. It’s obviously based on assumptions.”

Legislators to Carlile’s rescue … again

The draft construction bill could solve the problem vexing rural residents in the Carlile area in Crook County some 40 miles east of Campbell County’s largest city, Gillette. Many Carlile residents believe a Gillette’ municipal water development project, which drilled several wells into a deep Madison limestone aquifer in their neighborhood, dried up some shallow rural domestic wells and turned others acidic.

Legislation passed last year that allowed some Carlile residents to tap into the city supplies didn’t quell a ruckus between rural and city dwellers. Gillette officials said the legislative requirement broached legal obligations to its Campbell County voters who authorized taxes to supplement state funding. The state, through the water development office, funded $146 million of the $218 million Gillette-Madison project, perhaps the largest public-works project in Wyoming.

Gillette long ago grew beyond its ability to supply residents’ water from local sources, so it looked east and now pipes supplies from 40 miles away. Additional remote wells have run into problems and pitted rural Crook County residents against the city. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

But the factions met on the sidelines of a recent water meeting and found “language acceptable to both sides,” LaBonde said.

The face-off had stalled Gillette’s plans to serve some of its neighborhoods after the city refused to spend appropriated money because of the conditions imposed in last year’s water legislation. This year’s bill modifies those conditions to Gillette’s satisfaction, LaBonde said.

“I think we’re now in a much better place, provided this bill goes forward,” LaBonde said. “It would make the grant offer more amenable to [Gillette].”

The changes would limit the number of taps to the Gillette system in Crook County, limit use of the water by restricting agricultural operations, set Crook County fees equal to those charged in Gillette and allow new Crook water districts to use the city well field.

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While investigators haven’t pinpointed the cause of the domestic well disruption, the area’s shallow aquifers used by ranchers and rural residents are hit-and-miss and little understood. The construction bill also seeks $200,000 for a rural water supply plan that could resolve uncertain supplies in the area.

“It’s for [Carlile residents] and others who have what I would consider poor water quality,” LaBonde said. “The study would kind of expand that area of review [and determine] how many of those parties would [tap into] the Gillette-Madison project.”

As an alternative, rural residents could form a tax district to drill their own deep well into the Madison aquifer, he said. Crook County would receive the grant for the grassroots initiative.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Wyoming’s omnibus water bills often float by unnoticed, because they are mostly funded by dedicated revenue streams, run textually long and sleep-inducing, and don’t appear to have an impact on the state’s budget generally. Key decisions involving big dollars and affecting lots of lives. Rarely do the journalists show up to cover it. Thank you, Angus and Wyofile.

  2. What is the objective of late season (I assume this means post haying) irrigating? Is there data to back up this practice?