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.
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.
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.