In a split vote last month, a legislative committee agreed to spend an additional $613,685 to study the impacts of the proposed West Fork Dam in Carbon County’s Little Snake River Valley.
The amendment boosts the contract cost for the analysis work by 50%, raising it from almost $1.2 million to approximately $1.8 million. The Wyoming Water Development Commission gets reimbursed for half of the study expenses through a grant secured by two irrigation districts. Project backers estimated in 2017 that the entire project would cost $80 million.
The committee passed the amendment on a voice vote. At least one committee member, not identified by name during the meeting, voted against the increase.
The change is another indication that Wyoming’s original plans for the proposed 264-foot-high structure, which 44 irrigators have expressed interest in using, will require more scrutiny than water development proponents said. In addition to the site on U.S. Forest Service land on the West Fork of Battle Creek, consultants will examine alternative reservoir sites and options, including converting irrigation ditches to pipelines and undertaking other conservation measures.
Ninety-six percent of the nearly 1,000 comments on the plan oppose construction of the West Fork Dam. Critics have questioned the state’s accounting of potential benefits and environmental impacts.
With such projects, federal agencies seek “the least environmentally damaging, practicable alternative,” Water Development Office Director Jason Mead told the committee.
The request for more money brought questions from Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) who asked why obvious subjects like old growth forests and amphibians weren’t part of the original scope of work.
“I don’t understand why this wasn’t figured into the initial contract,” he said at the meeting of the Joint Select Water Committee in Cody on Aug. 17. “It seems like this is a large amendment.”
Mead pointed to the project’s complexity.
“There’s a proposal for a land exchange associated with that [proposed West Fork Dam site]” Mead said. “So not only are we going through the normal [National Environmental Policy Act] process, but we always also have to abide by the U.S. Forest [Service] land exchange requirements and regulations.”
The funds would be used to fill a “data gap” in an environmental review of the proposed structure, Mead said. Environmental consultants will use the money to examine a dozen topics not included in the original review done by SWCA Environmental Consultants.
Among the items that need additional study are amphibians, cultural resources, plants, raptor nests, hazardous substances, old growth forest stands, aquatic resources, noxious weeds, channel stability and water quality modeling.
Wyoming’s plan to acquire U.S. Forest Service property for the 130-acre reservoir is apparently being questioned. The 10,000-acre-foot impoundment would cover as much area as about 100 football fields and store as much water as is used by 20,000 typical households in a year.
“Cooperating agencies and [the] lead federal agency [the Natural Resources Conservation Service] are currently looking at what other alternatives should there be,” Mead said. Among those are a smaller reservoir and conversion of irrigation ditches to non-porous pipes.
Explaining the need for more money, Mead said it’s difficult to predict what might come up in complex proposals like the West Fork Dam.
“We know there’s going to be these other things that come up during the NEPA process,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to try to guess that in our feasibility studies and spin our wheels when you may just have to redo something.”
The additional review may call for more field work next summer.
“Unfortunately, in this case, this has come so late in the season, that our NEPA liaison consultant, and all their environmental scientists and everything else are already out in the field on other projects,” Mead told the committee. It’s uncertain whether the additional money will complete the project analysis.
“I can’t guarantee we won’t be back again,” Mead said.
Rep. Jon Conrad (R-Mountain View) outlined what would happen without more money.
“Then the project dies, for lack of a better word,” Conrad said. Mead agreed.
“Essentially the NEPA process will come to a halt because they cannot move forward until they have that information,” he said.
The Savery-Little Snake Water Conservancy District and Colorado’s Pothook Water Conservancy would be beneficiaries of the project. Backers estimated in 2017 the dam would cost $80 million, the bulk of which Wyoming would fund. Ranchers in the two states, who operate in the troubled Colorado River Basin, seek to store more water for late-season irrigation.