SARATOGA—The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service will likely request funding “in the over-$20-million range” to help finance a controversial dam proposed for the Little Snake River drainage, a federal official said last week.

The revelation emerged from a long-awaited series of public meetings in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga during which project critics and proponents interrogated state and federal agency representatives and argued the merits of the West Fork Dam initiative. 

Estimated in 2017 to cost $80 million, the 260-foot-high concrete structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir in Carbon County near the confluence of Battle and Haggarty Creeks has become the latest skirmish line in the West’s interminable water wars.

Water developers and many in the local agricultural community hail the public work as a critical tool for mitigating the effects of deepening drought and a boon for wildlife, recreation and the local economy. Opponents describe it as an expensive boondoggle poised to benefit a small number of irrigators — many of whom aren’t even in Wyoming — while shifting negative environmental impacts downstream.  

Following years of quiet agency maneuvering, legislative negotiating and campaigning from both sides, a framework for the potential deal has taken shape. It involves a state-federal land swap, complex “public benefit” calculations, a streamlined environmental review, majority funding from the state of Wyoming, minority contributions from water-users and now, apparently, a potentially skid-greasing influx of federal dollars. 

“At a time when the larger Colorado River Basin is in crisis and upper basin states are being asked to reduce consumptive use, [how does] expediting this process of water development serve the public interest?”

River Runner Cody Perry

The NRCS’s funding interest was “some new info,” according to a participant at one of last week’s public meetings.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service will request funding if it and other agencies approve construction, said Shawn Follum, state conservation engineer with the NRCS in Casper. 

Funds aren’t guaranteed, he said; “We can’t commit Congress’ dollars in the future.” But the money could qualify as the required contribution from the Pothook Water Conservancy District of about two dozen irrigators in Colorado, according to discussions at the public meetings.

Wyoming may still face challenges funding the dam if federal officials approve it. In an unprecedented move in 2018, state legislators cut some $35 million from a water-construction bill and required lawmaker approval for any new funds for the West Fork Dam.

In an era of infrastructure and stimulus funding, however, more federal money might be available. “The reality is there are a variety of places where to find this … funding,” rancher Pat O’Toole, a project proponent and former state lawmaker, said.

Funding, however, is only one of many variables that need to be solved for if the complex public works proposal is to come to fruition. The terms of a land swap and parallel environmental review are also top of mind for stakeholders, as is an evaluation of who actually stands to benefit from the undertaking.  

‘Somewhat befuddled’

Held over three evenings, the meetings drew about 150 people to hear how the NRCS and Medicine Bow National Forest might authorize the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek.

In what’s being called a “parallel process” The Medicine-Bow will decide whether to exchange land to enable the 130-acre reservoir that would hold 10,000 acre-feet, mostly for late-season irrigation. About 44 irrigators have expressed interest in buying the water, according to discussion at the meetings.

Pat O’Toole, who ranches in the Baggs area, was among participants at the Saratoga public meeting on the West Fork Dam on Jan. 12, 2023. Approximately 150 persons attended three sessions — also held in Baggs and Craig, Colorado — explaining how the Medicine Bow National Forest and U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service will decide whether to authorize a 264-foot concrete structure. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Participants called the bifurcated approvals confusing and criticized the process that, according to Wyoming officials, is designed to skirt more lengthy federal environmental reviews.

“A lot of questions are coming from people who deal with this [National Environmental Policy Act] process a lot and they’re somewhat befuddled,” said Jeb Steward an Encampment resident, former state representative and a former member of the Wyoming Water Development Commission who has worked as a water rights consultant in the area.

Meeting participant Soren Jespersen said officials had created a “very confusing process, and it’s difficult … for the public to know when and how to weigh in.”

Cindy McKee, a rancher who irrigates from a stream above the proposed dam, and grazes cattle on state land that’s offered in the swap, echoed those concerns. “We’ve been very disappointed in the lack of communication from the state, as singularly affected as we are both by the land trade and by the proposed water project,” she said. “We were never notified that our [grazing] lease was up for consideration for the land trade. Fourteen years ago when the dam was conceived, we didn’t know about it for two years.

“It’s been difficult, quite honestly, to find information,” McKee said. “Documents are usually released very shortly before an opportunity to public comment. It’s been frustrating and discouraging.”

Comments and public interest

Federal and state officials stressed that comments about the review’s scope should be made in writing to the NRCS by Feb. 13. Only persons and organizations that comment can later object to any decision.

An NRCS draft environmental impact statement is expected in September with a final version released in April 2024 and adoption scheduled for that May.

“I have not been getting enough water.”

Eamon O’toole

The Medicine Bow will make a “feasibility analysis” on a 6,282-acre land swap proposed by the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments. If feasible, the national forest would then make a public-interest determination that could turn the dam site inside the national forest into Wyoming state property.

That Medicine-Bow decision “will be integrated so the land exchange is actually part of the proposed action” in the EIS, said Amanda Nicodemus, a representative of SWCA Environmental Consultants, which is engaged in public outreach.

The main stated purpose of the dam and reservoir is to impound 6,500 acre-feet of water for late-season irrigation in the Little Snake River Valley on the Wyoming-Colorado border near Baggs, Savery and Dixon. An additional 1,500 acre-feet would be designated as a “minimum bypass” for fisheries and habitat.

The meetings were designed to answer process questions but they also brought out strong opinions.

“I have not been getting enough water,” said Eamon O’Toole, a board member of the Savery-Little Snake River Conservancy, one of the water districts that would own the dam and reservoir. “In our valley everybody is getting shorter and shorter [irrigation seasons],” he said.

If the state constructs the dam and reservoir, “water would be held up in Wyoming for Wyoming to use,” he said. The proposed dam and reservoir, his father Pat O’Toole said, “helps with the shortage in hydrology that’s now happening.”

Public benefit?

The Medicine Bow’s land-exchange decisions are critical factors for dam approval. The NRCS will examine alternatives to achieve watershed planning goals without a dam, including one promoting water conservation.

Irrigators are usually required to pony up 33% of a project’s price. If proponents can show that public benefits amount to a significant percentage of the project cost, however, Wyoming can reduce that required private contribution and the state can grant the rest of the funds.

In the case of the West Fork Dam, Wyoming believes the proposal provides $73.7 million in public benefits. That sum qualifies the project for only an 8% irrigator contribution, with the difference coming from state coffers and other sources. Several meeting participants questioned that accounting.

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

Others asked whether Wyoming’s evaluation dovetails with Forest Service public-interest requirements and whether benefits in the Little Snake River Valley would be offset by environmental liabilities and other public impacts downstream.

“At a time when the larger Colorado River Basin is in crisis and upper basin states are being asked to reduce consumptive use, [how does] expediting this process of water development serve the public interest?” asked Cody Perry, a river runner who produces films about the Western watershed through the organization Rigged-to-Flip.

Steamboat Springs resident John Spezia asked whether analysts have considered “long-term aridification instead of the short-term drought.

“We don’t want to do another Colorado Compact mistake by just using short-term data,” he said. A reservoir would increase water lost to evaporation, Spezia said, “so it’s working against itself.”

Instead of building a dam, the NRCS, which is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary private-lands conservation agency, should promote crops that need less water “so these ranchers can survive,” he said.

Jeb Steward of Encampment is pictured at a public meeting in Saratoga Jan. 12, 2023. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Wyoming believes it has not yet used its allocation of Colorado River Compact water. By creating the dam and reservoir, Wyoming will be “extending and enhancing habitat” for Colorado River cutthroat trout, project consultant Nicodemus said. She responded to Mark Van Roojen who questioned the wisdom of plugging a steep, forested gorge with 450,000 cubic yards of concrete.

The dam could isolate the West Fork of Battle Creek and Haggarty Creek to create a sanctuary for the struggling species, according to plans.

But the dam would block the cutthroat from naturally migrating up and downstream, Van Roojen said, plus “people will put other [species of] fish behind the dam and those fish might go down and compete with the native fish,” he said.

The downstream fisheries and habitat bypass flow is “a little amount of water” to produce $35 million in benefits, river runner Perry said.

Rancher McKee also had questions about stated benefits. “I always wonder when a contractor is hired by a client who is interested in a certain result,” she said. “It just seems like a peer review is in order.”

It appears unlikely Wyoming’s benefits analysis will be deeply scrutinized by federal officials. The NRCS analysis will “not necessarily [be a] peer review,” Follum said.

44 irrigators

McKee urged a broader view when spending millions of dollars of public money. “There’s so many more positive things that could benefit a lot of people,” she said.

About 44 irrigators expressed a “display of interest” in late-season irrigation, according to information provided by Jonathan Bowler, watermaster for the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District. Irrigators returned 45% of 102 mailed surveys with 95% saying they would consider buying new water, Bowler said.

Developers have not put a price on an acre-foot from the dam, however, prompting a question from Encampment’s Steward.

A map outlines property ownership around the proposed site of the West Fork Dam and reservoir. (NRCS/OSLI/USFS)

“Are [irrigators] interested to the extent that they will pay roughly 20 bucks an acre-foot — excuse my language — just to make a cow turd from native hay?” he asked. “I can assure you in my experience those numbers do not pencil out.”

State officials have said they believe irrigators will sign up.

Nevertheless NRCS will consider investment calculations, Follum said. “The economics are key and if it’s not economically viable, that’s just not something that the NRCS could continue to support.”

Organizers would not name potential irrigation beneficiaries. “There can’t be specific names for something that doesn’t exist yet,” Bowler said.

Because her irrigation water comes from a creek above the proposed reservoir, McKee and her husband, Cody, would be the only ranchers to have their irrigation flows tightly controlled and potentially restricted to comply with Wyoming law regarding water rights downstream, she said.

“Cody and I anticipate being regulated every single year and possibly to devastating effect,” McKee said.

The reservoir would have water rights junior to hers, Mead, from the Water Development Office, said. Further, a reservoir can benefit those above it, like the McKees, through exchanges of water rights, he said.

Some of the state land to be traded away includes acreage where the McKees holds grazing rights, McKee said. “We are doubly impacted by this proposal.”

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)...

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Definitely a rich white man/rancher project with no benefit to the public or the state. Ridiculous Wasted dollars. Want to do something positive with money, then fund Medicaid and help 20,000 Wyoming citizens not 60 spoiled ranchers of which only half are even active ranchers.

    1. Preciously! We need health care for Wyoming’s 20,000 before we need hay for 60, yes spoiled ranchers who benefit from tax breaks, government subsidies and more.

  2. Late season irrigation can not only benefit the rancher it will benefit the river also with return flows from the land that’s been irrigated . Subsurface flows returning to the river at a time when it is needed the most . Sure its a boondoggle show me a government project that’s not . However the process should consider the individual who it affects the most. Water may become so valuable in wyoming that this cost could be cheap.

  3. “boon for wildlife, recreation and the local economy.”

    That’s the sales pitch. Someone is trying to fool ya to grab a windfall and using the all too common cherry picked “public benefit” as a reason to subsidize a bunch or ranchers.

    Don’t be fooled. The money is better spent investing in developments that increase the standard of living for all Wyoming residents, or help provide better public services which are lacking in too many communities.

  4. After voting against a proposal to expand medical coverage for post-partum mothers, state legislator Pendergraft said “Whenever an individual cedes responsibility, they cede liberty,”

    Curious to see if he feels the same way about this project, which costs orders of magnitude more and benefits orders of magnitude less people.

  5. I can’t help but wonder how many of the proponents of this would also be the same people who complain about out of control government spending and would go so far as to support defaulting on our national debt as a way to rein in this out of control spending.

  6. in order for wyoming to grow water that is in wyoming will need to be stored.
    if wyoming lets water flow down stream democratic states will be happy to consume wyoming’s water.
    since wyoming’s other resource coal is now considered tabu,water is the greatest resource wyoming has to attract people to the least populated state on the country.

    1. Since Wyoming has not grown in over 50 years, why do you think growth is a priority for current Wyomingites? This dam is an abominable idea based on greed, and greed only.

    2. So many in Wyoming want to complain about every project that comes along because their taxes might go up yet they want to spend that tax money to provide water to many Colorado instigators at a cheap rate late season for which there is little return on investment. Recreation is our future yes.. trout spawning thus migration that will become a management nightmare if this dam is built.

    3. Oh for god’s sake. Wyoming’s water flow to democratic states? It fell from the sky, it happened to land in Wy. If this damn dam is built, it will be 44 irrigators water, and they will laugh at the rest of us for giving it to them. Kill this boondoggle once and for all.

  7. Does anyone know why the SLIB is proposing a 6,282 acre land swap of such gigantic size?? And how is the size defined – is it 6,282 acres both ways or is it 3,141 acres from each side?? Acreage of this magnitude seems unjustified for the West Fork dam project – I wonder if the State might not be combining some other land acquisition desires into one proposal. It seems to me that the USFS may not be in agreement for a swap of that magnitude and might counter propose a much smaller exchange of land especially if watered bottom land is involved in the State’s proposal. Has an actual written proposal with detailed maps been submitted to the USFS or is it still in the works?? It seems that both the NRCS and the USFS will need this information very soon if they don’t already have it in hand.

    The recent meetings seemed to cover just the NRCS, Conservation District and water districts irrigation concerns and some of the State of Wyoming’s agencies have not voiced an opinion; such as, Game and Fish and State Historical Sites. I would venture a guess that Game and Fish will support the West Fork dam since the High Savery dam and reservoir appears to be quite successful – the West Fork dam seems to almost duplicate the High Savery but in an adjacent drainage. The State and Federal archaeologists will certainly scrutinize the old copper mine though – there’s an outside chance they could kill or complicate the land exchange.

    I can’t help but think that since High Savery went well and has delivered the desired expectations that the West Fork dam would share the same expectations.

  8. These guys hate federal money unless its lining their pockets. These guys aren’t cowboys, they’re snowflakes.

  9. After all these years of trying to build this dam or some other impoundment of Battle creek I find it incredible that there is no written agreement with the state of Colorado. It is inconceivable that the state of Wyoming would foot the entire bill for a dam and reservoir that will feed water into Colorado without any buy in from that state.
    It is my understanding that Colorado water users can sell their water rights to others. What is to prevent those irrigators from selling their rights to Fort Collins or other front range cities ?? Twenty dollars an acre foot would be a pittance to those in need of good mountain water.
    I also fail to see $73 million in public benefit from a reservoir which is barely accessible. I have not seen any figures for developing camping or fishing access and subsequent maintenance costs, though I have heard that if they put in a boat ramp it will be over 200 yards long. Perhaps they are planning on selling tickets to watch people back down the boat ramp. I’m not sure how they come up with that $73m figure but it seems contrived to allow only an 8% buy in from the irrigators instead of 33% which might change an irrigators mind about how important hay is to their operation.
    This is not just a100+ million dollar boondoggle (in 2018 dollars). We must keep in mind that the state will trade off up to 6200 acres of prime national forest land to make it happen. Even at $1000 an acre that is an additional $6.2 million dollars and we all know that national forest land is worth way more than that.
    Wrong in so many ways.