Pivot irrigation on the Mercer ranch near Hyattville grows feed for a herd of Angus cattle, along with malt and barley for Coors. The proposed $35-million Alkali Creek dam and reservoir, which would flood some of the land in the background, would benefit 241 landowners. Mercer supports a dam on his property. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Wyoming’s plans to impound more of its spring runoff advanced in the Bighorn Basin last week when residents voted to create an irrigation district to help fund a $32.5-million, 108-foot high dam.

Voters mulled whether to create the Nowood Watershed Improvement District around Hyattville northeast of Worland. On Aug. 18 they approved formation with 78 percent of the ballots. Owners of 71 percent of the acreage voted in favor. The successful election allows the project, which is planned on intermittent Alkali Creek, to advance to its next permitting phase.

The proposed dam is one of two major Big Horn County projects planned by the Wyoming Water Development Office. Developers also are on their way to securing permits for a 96-foot high, $39.8-million dam in the Shell Creek drainage east of Greybull.

That Upper Leavitt Reservoir enlargement would benefit irrigators along Shell and Beaver creeks. Supporters say both dams would aid ranchers in the critical late-summer growing season when natural flows dwindle but crops need to be brought to maturity.

“Always there’s a crunch later in the season,” Big Horn County Commissioner Jerry Ewing said as he overlooked the Upper Leavitt site last week. “Our oil and gas income is dwindling in the state.” Investing in the reservoir would support a foundational Wyoming industry — agriculture. “That’s what built this community,” Ewing said.

The federal government might have graduated from its dam-building era but Wyoming and Gov. Matt Mead are dedicated to water storage. Whether Mead will realize his goal of building 10 new storage projects in a decade is uncertain. But the $72 million plan for Big Horn County underscore the state’s commitment.

“Water is going to be the most contentious issue,” commissioner Ewing said. “The more we can store now, the more we can keep later.”

Lawmakers view dam projects

Ewing made his comments during a daylong tour of project sites organized by the water development office. The tour familiarized members of the Wyoming Water Development Commission and legislators from the Select Water Committee with the landscape and people.

They heard one ditch rider tell of shutting off flows when things got dry. “It’s heart-breaking,” Ron Morenci said, describing when he had to shut off irrigation to 4,700 acres in the Shell Creek drainage. The Upper Leavitt enlargement would resolve such heartbreak, backers say, reducing an average year’s shortage by 41 percent. Approximately 13,143 acres with attached irrigation rights attached to them would benefit.

The Alkali Creek reservoir at Hyattville also would provide relief. “Finding water to put in the reservoir is not a problem,” said John Joyce, one of the dam supporters. In spring “there’s a lot of water that comes down here and goes on into Montana.”

Much of the landscape around Shell would be arid without irrigation, like that supplied by the existing Leavitt Reservoir behind participants in the Wyoming Water Develoopment Office tour last week. Jason Mead, deputy director for the dam and reservoirs section, addresses the group. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Both the Shell and Nowood projects would avoid an environmental obstacle faced by many impoundment projects — degradation of a stream or river’s ecosystem. The Shell-area Upper Leavitt Reservoir enlargement would divert water from Beaver Creek to an area uphill of a small existing reservoir. The existing lake lies in an otherwise-dry depression among sandy cliffs surrounded by a near-desert landscape. Cacti grow a stone’s throw from wetlands created by the existing 643-acre-foot pool.

Diverting water from Beaver Creek to an “off-channel” site like the Upper Leavitt Reservoir avoids inundating and disrupting the ecology of the waterway. An expanded reservoir at Upper Leavitt would hold 6,604 acre-feet — 10 times the capacity of the existing pool — and cover 194 acres. The 1,800-foot long dam would serve more than 11,000 acres. The project would create 34 more acres of wetlands than now exist.

Similarly, the Nowood drainage project at Alkali Creek would impound water away from its principle source. The project would divert water from Paint Rock and Medicine Lodge creeks and impound it on Alkali Creek, which flows only part of the year. “We’re essentially dealing with an off-channel reservoir,” said Mark Donner, an engineer with Trihydro Corp. who has worked on the plans. Alkali Creek is “just an intermittent stream,” he said.

Election reveals divisions over dam projects

Despite the landslide results, the Nowood election last week was hotly contested, with 90 percent of ballots returned. The Alkali Creek impoundment above Hyattville would see the 108-foot high dam built on land owned by Martin Mercer and his family. He’s a fifth-generation area rancher who raises Angus cattle and claims water rights that date back to 1896. The family grows feed for its herd and malt and barley for Coors. Asa Shinn Mercer, legendary Wyoming newspaperman and author of Banditti of the Plains, homesteaded one part of the family’s Hyattville ranch where he lived out his last decades.

Martin Mercer is willing to sell some of the ranch — “a small piece of it” — where the Alkali Creek reservoir would be constructed. When built, the dam would be 2,600 feet long and impound 7,994 acre-feet over 294 acres. The lake would be available for recreation as well as irrigation. It is, Mercer said, “an opportunity to make things better for not only our ranch but the ranches below and above where the reservoir is going to be.” The reservoir would reduce annual shortages in the Nowood drainage by 22 percent.

Martin Mercer, right, and his wife Kelli and son Asa want the proposed Alkali Creek Reservoir to be built on their ranch. The family would trade for or buy other property if a deal is struck with the state. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Asa Mercer years ago sought to build some type of reservoir in the Bighorn Mountains, his great-great grandson said. But “isolationist” neighbors stymied him, Martin Mercer said. More recently, Mercer and others’ grassroots effort began with $20 contributions from area irrigators. But plans couldn’t advance until the new irrigation district election. Consultant Donner told the group “I was on hold until the district formed.”

The Wyoming Water Development Office, its commission and the Legislature boosted the effort by studying about 40 potential reservoir sites in the Nowood drainage before settling on Alkali Creek as the best. (Part of the Nowood project includes examination of the potential to expand Meadowlark Lake in the Bighorn National Forest on Wyo. Highway 16 between Ten Sleep and Buffalo.) Dam-backer Joyce celebrated Wyoming’s support. “I have a hard time envisioning how you would start a project like this without [help from] the state,” he said.

The Mercer family would lose part of its ranch. Roughly half of the 294-acre lake would be on Mercer property, the rest on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land. Water is more valuable than property, Mercer said. He would replace lost land by trade or purchase after conveying the dam and reservoir site to the state. “It’s a dry region,” Mercer said. “We’re interested in water. We’re interested in the youth and growth of Wyoming.”

It might be difficult to find an irrigator in the area who doesn’t support more water storage, but the Alkali Creek dam site has its detractors. Among those are Kris and Gene Robertson who irrigate from the source that would fill the reservoir. Their property is above the dam site and wouldn’t benefit from it, they say.

“We’re all for storing water,” Gene Robertson said. However, “we’re asking questions but not getting answers.” He’s inquired unsuccessfully, for example, what kinds of diversion structures might be built in the creek or on ditches, he said. “They’re trying to shove it down our throat.”

Neighbor Phil Caines said his property was included in the irrigation district although it also is upstream of the reservoir. “I don’t see how it’s going to benefit us,” he said.

The irrigation pinch comes in the late part of the growing season. Dam supporters told Caines and other upstream ranchers that owning water in the reservoir would help them in a crunch, Caines said. In the late season, he would release water his family owns from the new reservoir to users below. In turn, Caines would take his share out of Medicine Lodge or Paint Rock creeks.

But at that time of year “there’s not enough water in the creek up here to fill our water right,” Caines said. “I don’t see how it’s going to benefit us.”

His 80-year-old father, Jim Caines, said the reservoir would help only a handful of ranchers. “I don’t agree with that even though it’s the state’s money,” he said. “I am a proponent of storing water. I think it should benefit more than a few people.”

Another upstream objector, Kehoe Wayman said he voted against forming the district and will continue to oppose the site. “When they assess the fees, we’re going to pay those fees under protest,” he said. His irrigation ditch has been working fine for 100 years, he said. “I don’t see any need to muddy the water with interference from the state government or federal government.”

Mark Donner of Trihydro Corp. explains the topography at Meadowlark Lake, a potential reservoir site. Jason Mead is behind him. Wyoming Water Development Commission Vice Chairman Sheridan Little is center, in the red plaid shirt. Sen. Curt Meier is to Little’s left along with, commissioner Bill Resor, former Sen. John Hines and Suzsy Eklund, wife of Rep. John Eklund. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Jason Mead (no relation to the governor), deputy director of the dams and reservoirs section of the water development office, said water compacts governing flows into the Bighorn River allow Wyoming to store plenty more. “It’s not a question of quantity, it’s a question of timing,” he said of the runoff. The creeks would fill a reservoir at Alkali Creek most years, he said. An Alkali Creek Reservoir would service, directly or by exchange, approximately 9,710 acres that have water rights, he said.

“It’s great conservation,” he said of the Alkali Creek project. “It leaves water in the creek. The longer we can keep areas green, it benefits wildlife.”

How long it will take for the Alkali Creek or Upper Leavitt to receive federal approval is unknown. Project manager Mead said he told the BLM he was hoping for Upper-Leavitt approval in two years. “They laughed at me,” he said. More likely officials believe it would take three to four years, he said.

Mercer wants state water development to continue. “Hopefully there’s more to come,” he said. “Down the road, that’s something Wyoming is going to need — a lot of agriculture.”

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. You notice that water going into Montana is wasted in Wyoming’s eyes.We have water rights as well as down stream states when our water leaves our state. How is this legal?

    Robert Goffena

  2. Wyoming gives agriculture more subsidies than any other state in the union (which in and of itself is ridiculous for a state so ill suited for growing anything) and now the state government wants to take more water away from the land and wildlife that really need it and in the process provide even more subsidies to agriculture. Just say no!

    Ron Smith

  3. Standing at the intersection of Water Development Way and Agriculture Avenue , you must always ask the essential question: What is the true cost of dam projects to the Non-Ag resident or state taxpayer pool ?

    Water projects are notorious for not repaying the investment in them. I fear Wyoming’s new rush to ” impound what’s left now and we’ll sort it out later” is repeating the mistakes at the state level that the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps made when they went on their dam building binge beginning with Cody’s own Shoshone Dam , now called the Buffalo Bill Dam.

    What’s the point of new dams if we have not yet learned to manage the water? Two thousand years of Riparian Law dating back to the Rman Empire has taught us little , it seems.

    Bottom Line: we should never allocate water by a system of senior rights to absolute amounts of water…X many acre feet per year regardless. Some years that absolute amount of water simply isn’t there.

    Wyoming’s water should be apportioned according to actual flow available, by Percentage, not Acre Feet.

    Nobody owns water. It is not tangible or real property. And the supply is finite.

    If the Non-Ag taxpayer has any say in this scheme—and they should—they would insist that any new State water development be conditioned on that project paying for itself, in real dollars of return. Except that has rarely happened.

    Run the numbers in this article…. a few thousand acres of new cultivation costing the taxpayer many millions of dollars to build and operate. What’s the rate of return ?

    Dewey Vanderhoff