Water developers want to construct an $80 million, 264-foot-high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek south of Rawlins. This artist’s conception shows what the reservoir would look like in a Google Earth rendition. (Wyoming Water Development Office)

Citing a need to examine alternative dam and reservoir sites, officials have pushed back the expected completion of the environmental review of the proposed and contested West Fork Dam.

The Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy and Colorado’s Pothook Water Conservancy District want Wyoming to build the 264-foot-high dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest and swap state land with forest service property to streamline and enable the project. Designed to meet irrigation desires and provide other benefits to Carbon County’s Little Snake River Valley, the proposed 10,000 acre-foot reservoir would flood 130 acres at the confluence of the West Fork of Battle Creek and Haggarty Creek.

But the proposed development in a steep, forested canyon drew opposition over its cost, location, need, efficiency and potential environmental impacts. Opponents have criticized a proposed land exchange between Wyoming and the Medicine Bow that would put the development site in state hands and construction more firmly under its control.

“We have to do a more detailed analysis to see if [alternative sites are] less environmentally impactful or provide a better answer, a better solution.”

Shawn Follum, NRCS engineer

Wyoming, which would pick up the bulk of the initially estimated $80-million dam cost, favors that site and design, said Jason Mead, director of the Wyoming Water Development Office. Wyoming has touted the development as one that would meet late-season irrigation needs and provide environmental benefits too.

“When the state and [irrigation] districts went through the feasibility analysis, it was felt, based on the information, that the West Fork site was the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” he wrote in an email.

The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service anticipated completing a draft environmental impact statement in September. The review of alternative sites has added “a few months to the anticipated schedule” spokeswoman Alyssa Ludeke wrote in an email, but how long the delay might be is unknown.

A better solution?

Wyoming identified nine alternative sites, one or more of which will now be reviewed in depth in the draft environmental impact statement.

“We have to do a more detailed analysis to see if [they are] less environmentally impactful or provide a better answer, a better solution,” Shawn Follum, an engineer with the NRCS, said Friday. “While there’s a preferred alternative [at the West Fork site], that’s the very beginning, not a deal.

“We’ve not seen any indication that that site won’t be a possibility,” Follum said.

Agricultural lands in the Little Snake River valley on the border of Wyoming and Colorado. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Meantime, the Medicine Bow National Forest continues to work on a “feasibility analysis” to inform the Forest Supervisor whether to move forward with a land exchange for the West-Fork site. There’s no deadline for that yet, said Aaron Voos, the Medicine Bow spokesman, and no guarantee a land swap would take place.

“It is looking highly likely that one of the alternatives analyzed will include a non-land exchange option, such as a special use permit,” Voos said.

The Medicine Bow has been analyzing the feasibility of the proposed land exchange, Voos said. If feasible, the Forest Service would determine whether an exchange is in the public interest.

“‘Public interest’ is required to be addressed and will be heavily factored into the Forest Supervisor’s recommendation to proceed or not proceed,” Voos wrote in an email.

Wyoming shunned obtaining a special use permit for the West Fork site because environmental reviews and other regulatory burdens would have been more complex. If the reservoir land were instead exchanged and became state property, construction permitting would be simpler, according to state officials.

Wyoming may have underestimated the complexity of the undertaking, stating in a proposed contract that it expected 100 comments on the development plan with only 40 being substantive. Instead, people submitted 936 comments, of which 96% opposed the project, according to a tally by WyoFile.

The study’s delay is not a surprise, Mead said. “Oftentimes federal agencies want a little more information to determine if an alternative should be dismissed or not, or may want to reconsider other sites,” he said. The additional analyses will ensure “a reasonable range of alternatives” is considered, he said.

New work necessary for the draft environmental impact statement includes hydraulic analysis and other tasks, some of which may involve field work, Follum said. It’s possible that work could be delayed by snow, extending the task until next spring, he said.

The NRCS is leading the environmental study with cooperation from the Medicine Bow National Forest and other agencies.

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. Let’s get this straight. The State of Wyoming is going to fund most of this project to the total of $80 million dollars to benefit irrigators and a Conservation District in COLORADO? Why should Wyoming taxpayers subsidize Colorado irrigators? If all of the irrigators and beneficiaries of this project want to get together and form an Irrigation District and levy taxes on themselves to fund it, then by all means, have at it. At minimum, the State of Colorado needs to kick in the proportional share of funding for their beneficiaries. There are far more pressing water supply and infrastructure needs in Wyoming that should be prioritized over this reservoir. And $80 million could be spent on many projects that benefit far more Wyomingites and solve more critical needs than this dam will. WWDC needs to get their house in order, projects like these aren’t a wise use of State of Wyoming time or funding.

  2. Who is still trying to force this project to happen? How will Larry Hicks, or his family, benefit from this dam being put in place?

  3. This project will help sustain the multigenerational farms as intact working landscapes which are maintaining wildlife habitat and native plants, sequestering carbon, and providing important ecosystem services that often go unrecognized. Proactive and sustainable management of resources, especially water, benefits everyone.

  4. This boondoggle needs to be stopped. It is inconceivable that Wyoming taxpayers would be asked to finance a $80,000,000.00 dam just to produce more hay. Are you kidding me ??? What a waste of Wyoming resources. I agree that any irrigator should pay a fee to utilize this impounded water until they have repaid the cost of the dam construction. If the State wants to finance this dam and it is so damn important to the irrigators then they should all be willing to pay for the privilege.

    No town in Wyoming can provide water or sewer without proving that their users are paying enough to cover the costs of the service so why should agriculture get a free ride ??

  5. The only alternative to this boon dock dam proposal, is to forget it. Put it in the garbage can.

  6. Just say no. There are no environmental or economic benefits (other than to a very few irrigators) from this boondoggle project. A reservoir filled with silt, which is what happens to all them, is not an environmental benefit. The public should not have to pay for a reservoir that will not benefit them. This proposed reservoir would also be a negative for the native cutthroat species.

  7. Wyoming had better not foot the bill for a handful of irrigators or someone’s getting fired ! How about a special assessment against the irrigated land that will benefit from this reservoir ? I am opposed to the state of Wyoming paying the lion’s share of the cost of this dam and related infrastructure. What downstream sites may be better suited ?

  8. No matter where the dam is proposed to be built it is my hopes that those who oppose building any new dams will make their voices heard to stop any construction.