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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”