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

Federal authorities have set a Feb. 13 deadline for comments on a proposal to build a 264-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Carbon County.

The proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir would impound 6,500 acre-feet of irrigation storage in the Little Snake River Valley and parts of Colorado. Another 1,500 acre-feet would maintain a “minimum bypass flow” into Battle Creek and the Little Snake, Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers downstream.

Officials announced the deadline in the Federal Register on Dec. 28 where they said they would accept written comments for 45 days. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has scheduled three public meetings Jan. 10-12 in communities in the impacted region.

The meetings are not designed as forums at which officials will accept public comment, Aaron Voos, a spokesman for the Medicine Bow said. Officials will use them to explain plans for construction of the proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir and the parallel Forest Service examination of a land exchange that would enable the project. 

Why it matters

The dam would cost some $80 million, according to a 2017 estimate, and the state would pay $73.6 million of that, original plans state. The dam and reservoir would generate an estimated $73.3 million in public benefits such as recreation and fishing, according to developers. Those benefits allow the state to reduce the amount irrigators would have to contribute, according to documents outlining the plan.

The proposal to impound more water in the Colorado River Basin and extract it from waterways for “increased pasture and hay production” comes at a time when seven Western states and Mexico are at odds over who can use what water in the overtaxed system. Even though officials are struggling to maintain water levels in Lake Powell, Wyoming believes it has the right to construct the reservoir and use flows from the basin’s network of waterways.

 Who said what:

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will prepare an environmental impact statement analyzing six alternatives, including no-action and an option that would use “alternate means such as … water conservation projects and habitat improvement projects” to achieve watershed-plan goals.

At the same time, the Medicine Bow will consider comments on Wyoming’s proposal for a 6,282-acre land swap that would “eliminate the need for a special use permit” for the dam and reservoir, according to the public notice.

“These are two parallel processes,” Voos said. The Forest Service will participate in the EIS while conducting its own feasibility study.

“That [feasibility study] produces a public-interest determination, which says ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ this land exchange process is in the best interest of the American public,” Voos said.

History

Originally proposed at 280 feet, the Federal Register notice now puts the estimated dam height at 264 feet. Promoted by the Wyoming Water Development Office and Commission, the proposed impoundment near the confluence of the West Fork of Battle and Haggarty creeks would benefit irrigators in the Savery-Little Snake River and Pothook Water Conservancy Districts in Wyoming and Colorado.

Irrigation diversions would benefit between 67-100 irrigators, leading to funding debates in the Wyoming Legislature. Dam supporters point to ancillary benefits, including recreation and a boon to fisheries and wetlands.

What’s next

The upcoming meetings for the evenings of Jan 10, 11 and 12 will take place in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga, respectively. They will help determine the scope of the analysis, according to the Federal Register.Those wishing to comment before the Feb. 13 deadline can do so through an online portal, by post or hand-delivery to Andi Neugebauer, Wyoming State Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, 100 E B St. #3, Casper, Wyoming 82601. Specify the docket ID NRCS-2022-0012 in hard-copy comments to Neugebauer.

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)...

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  1. I agree with Tyler Jameson:
    Dams across the country are proving to be an atrocity on the environment, and a horrible long term solution. The western states need to think about long term water solutions. We are already on the brink of a catastrophe in terms of water. Another reservoir is NOT the answer to provide large agricultural land owners to have accessible year round water. It’s time to adapt to the situation we are in. Change the farming practices to work with the environment, instead of forever trying to force nature into our submission and for our conveniences.
    Not to mention that the Yampa river is one of the last large rivers in the upper Colorado river basin that remains wilds and untouched from large water storage projects. We need to change, not our landscapes

  2. “The [West Fork] dam would cost some $80 million, according to a 2017 estimate, and the state would pay $73.6 million of that.”

    However, a 2024 cost estimate may bring the cost to over $100 million.

    “Irrigation diversions would benefit between 67-100 irrigators.” The dam would impound 6,500 acre-feet of water.

    The storage of 6,500 acre-feet is really not that much water to divide up between 67 – 100 appropriators.

    While reservoir storage is measured in acre-feet, appropriators’ use of water is measured in cubic feet per second (cfs).

    If you convert acre-feet to cubic feet per second, 1 cubic foot per second running for 24 hours uses 2 acre-feet.

    Let’s say 75 appropriators use 5 cfs per day, a modest amount. They would enjoy only 8.6 days of water. Is eight and a half days of water for 75 appropriators worth $100 million to the rest of Wyoming’s water users?

  3. Dams across the country are proving to be an atrocity on the environment, and a horrible long term solution. The western states need to think about long term water solutions. We are already on the brink of a catastrophe in terms of water. Another reservoir is NOT the answer to provide large agricultural land owners to have accessible year round water. It’s time to adapt to the situation we are in. Change the farming practices to work with the environment, instead of forever trying to force nature into our submission and for our conveniences.
    Not to mention that the Yampa river is one of the last large rivers in the upper Colorado river basin that remains wilds and untouched from large water storage projects. We need to change, not our landscapes

  4. Several extremely important points:
    1.) The irrigators that would receive their adjudicated water – in Wyoming and Colorado – already have senior water rights on the Little Snake River drainage. The propose dam would not change those existing water rights – all it would do is give the water administers a very important tool to deliver water on a pre-planned, sustainable basis. Right now the water available to the senior water right holders is dependent on weather – that is, drought restricted – and the irrigators only receive water when it is climatically available. Construction of the dam would impound water 12 months throughout the year for distribution during the irrigation season. Therefore, water distribution is more consistent and dependable during the short irrigation season.
    2.) Angus’s article seems to imply that 1500 acre feet of water will be guaranteed for minimum in-stream flow; that is, the creek would never be allowed to run dry and imperil the fisheries and aquatic ecosystem. This is an extremely important matter which should be widely discussed at the upcoming meetings. Certainly Wyoming Game and Fish will be looking at this matter very closely and demanding a minimum in-stream flow. Isn’t one of the cut throat species populating the Little Snake drainage – it needs guaranteed in-stream flows.
    Minimum in-stream flow was the driving factor behind the 4 state compact which resulted in the North PLatte River being guaranteed enough water to sustain a major ecosystem and about 7 T&E species. It is no longer acceptable for irrigation impoundments to catch all of the water and dry up the down stream flow.

    example: The Big Horn River below Boysen Reservoir averages 1400 cfs constant flow year around which sustains the fisheries and ecosystem. This flow is enjoined by the Shoshone, Greybull, Tensleep, Shell and No-water flows that sustain Yellowtail reservoir and the fisheries below Yellowtail on to the Yellowstone. The whole system works because water managers can control the discharge from Boysen and guarantee a minimum in-stream flow.
    The proposed dam on the Little Snake drainage must ABSOLUTELY guarantee a minimum in-stream flow year around. Please discuss in detail at the upcoming meetings.

    1. Unfortunately the Big Horn River has no instream flow requirements. Last year above Worland, the Hanover Irrigation District totally dried up the river for several days until I kept calling Fish and Game and the Bur of Reclamation. I brought up endangered species and finally a call was made to release a small amount of water from Boysen. This state is run by ag. And they are heavily subsidized freeloaders.

      1. wow!!! I hadn’t heard about that situation – terrible, just plain terrible. You’re right there are re-introduced fishes in the Big Horn which need minimum in-stream flow. Game and Fish works so hard trying to develop a thriving fishing industry and avoid the listing of fish species and then this happens. I once saw the PLatte River at Guernsey running one foot wide – but that was before the 4 state compact. And, Washakie County has been trying to form a new irrigation ditch NW of Worland which would convey Big Horn Water via the Hanover Ditch at least in part. Imagine what will happen to the Big Horn flow if it comes to be. Hanover taking all of the water also deprives the irrigation districts north of Worland in the Greybull and Lovell area their water. What were they thinking – or not thinking???

      2. I agree the subsidies in Carbon county alone from 1995 to 2017 were over $21 million from ag dollars. Now they want to ask for for more than their fairshare with the largest being over $2 million to holdings that benefit a family of 3. They believe the water is theirs to waste in our arid climate that has limited production rather than downstream where a large portion of the food production exists. Conservation practices should be the priority. After all they boast 100 years of practice and know best….right?

    2. With respect to your Point #1 above, you’re just confirming that the main, maybe only benefit of this enormously expensive project is to benefit a handful of wealthy land owners. Some in Wyoming. Some in Colorado.

      The Work-a-Day Middle Class citizens of Wyoming deserve better than this. That we are providing subsidies to Colorado land owners in and of itself is outrageous.

      But even putting that aside, that a tiny group of agricultural special interests should be so doted on by Wyoming, financially speaking, is ridiculous.

  5. What if we just move the cattle and hay fields to where they already have water? Like somewhere that’s not in the high desert. Maybe Iowa?

  6. I’m still perplexed. What is the benefit to anglers or the general outdoor public? At 80 million dollars for 75 irrigators that’s a million per person. Quite a subsidy. What’s in it for the public? Access, water quality, fisheries….anything?

  7. The upper basin states have only developed a portion of their allotted share of the Colorado River via the Compact. Lower basin water users will no doubt try to torpedo any effort by upper basin water users to develop means to divert more water. Good luck to Wyoming.

    1. Roger’s comment that the upper basin states – primarily Wyoming – have not used their allotted share of the agreed upon compact water is the very heart of this proposal. Use it or lose it.

  8. good deal for wyoming.
    did not realize that colorado would also benefit from this project.
    lets hope that the federal government will also see the benefits of such a worthy project.
    the dam height should calm fears that the down stream users are being gypped out of their share of the colorado river water.