Wyoming is one of four upper-basin states governed by the Colorado River Compact and associated laws that require 7.5 million acre-feet of water to flow past Lees Ferry, Arizona, annually. Being able to use the all of the water impounded by Fontenelle Dam during droughts would help Wyoming meet its obligation under those laws while also using its share of the Green River. (Colorado Foundation for Water Education)

Legislators and industrialists hoping to build an energy complex in southwest Wyoming could more easily divert and use Green River water under a bill U.S. Sen. John Barrasso advanced last week.

Barrasso heard no objections from a Bureau of Reclamation official against a plan to finish armoring the upstream face of Fontenelle Dam on the Green River in Sweetwater County near LaBarge. The bill would allow Wyoming to increase the amount of water drained from the 20-mile long reservoir.

If successful, the project would allow the state to use the bulk of its remaining allocation under the Colorado River Compact, diverting another 149,600 acre-feet from the Green River annually, according to state documents. Notably, the environmental footprint of the reservoir would not increase, but drawdowns could expose more mud flats than have been seen in decades.

Today, armoring, or rip-rap extends only partway down the upstream face of the 139-foot-high dam. That means about the bottom quarter of the reservoir’s 345,317 acre-feet can’t be used without endangering the dam itself. If the lake were drawn to below the armoring, waves would erode the dam’s upstream face.

Wyoming has asked the bureau several times to use Wyoming planning money for the project, Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said. “The bureau has so far turned that project down,” he said. “I think Sen. Barrasso is interested in moving this project forward.” The bill directs the Department of the Interior to work with Wyoming on the plan.

Wyoming would foot the bill, the senator said in a statement announcing last week’s Senate hearing. “This bill directs that the State of Wyoming pay for the entire project,” he said. “This includes paying for the study, the design, the planning, and construction of the project. This commonsense bill would provide much needed water storage for southwestern Wyoming.”

In introducing the bill this spring with U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, Barrasso listed some of the potential uses of the stored, but inaccessible water. Lummis is carrying a companion bill in the U.S. House.

“In Wyoming, farmers and ranchers need a reliable and plentiful supply of water in order to keep their livestock and crops healthy,” Barrasso said in a May 12 statement. “More water storage capacity means more water for farmers, ranchers and local communities. It also provides an economic incentive for new businesses to grow and create jobs in southwestern Wyoming.”

Visions of a desert garden

Visions of pastoral landscapes sprouting from Wyoming’s desert were the impetus of the 1953 Seedskadee Project, the official name of the Fontenelle Dam construction program. But visions and reality don’t always match, and in 1962 officials stopped irrigation aspects of the Seedskadee Project “to seek solutions to the serious financial and economic problems encountered on high-altitude irrigation projects.”

The federal commissioner of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy — a University of Wyoming grad and former Campbell County agent who championed dams — issued the stop order, a 1997 BOR history of the development says. Experimental farms sprouted on 512 acres in an effort to prove the project feasible. But nobody bought the farms when the government put them on the market. “Fontenelle Dam, originally conceived as an irrigation storage dam, evolved toward storage of water for cities, industry, and fish and wildlife, as a result of these experimental farm studies and irrigation development was deferred indefinitely,” the 1997 review states.

Lummis also hitched her legislation to agriculture in announcing her bill. “Ranching in Wyoming all my life, I understand the need for water storage since we can’t depend solely on regular rainfall in our high plains desert state,” she said in a statement. “Water storage and other water development projects are what make Wyoming and the arid West bloom, and this legislation will build on that success story with this common-sense, state-led fulfillment of Fontenelle’s storage potential.”

It is more likely Lummis’ “other water development projects,” and Barrasso’s “economic incentive for new businesses to grow,” would be better descriptions for increased Fontenelle flows, according to state documents. Right now, however, there’s no concrete plan for the water.

This map of irrigated lands in the Green River Basin shows little agricultural benefit, marked in red, from Fontenelle Reservoir. Creating a high-altitude garden in the arid landscape was an original goal of Fontenelle Dam construction, but the effort never panned out. (State’s West Water Resources Corporation)

“It would be premature to say we know exactly how that water would be used,” said Nephi Cole, Gov. Matt Mead’s policy advisor on water. “Most certainly there’s opportunity and demand at this time for industrial, municipal and agricultural use of that water.”

Additional Fontenelle water “most definitely” could be used for an industrial complex that legislators and industrialists have dreamed of building in southwest Wyoming, water development director LaBonde said. Such a complex could use Green River water and southwest Wyoming’s other natural resources – trona, coal, helium, and natural gas — to add value to the state’s usual export of raw products.

LaBonde’s office reviewed potential use of Wyoming’s water in Fontenelle Reservoir in 2011 and estimated that the state could more than triple the amount used for industrial projects by 2055 under a high-growth scenario. Industrial use would jump from 56,800 acre-feet to 206,400, a 3.6-factor increase.

Former Wyoming Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau outlined the potential benefits of developing Wyoming’s natural resources, rather than selling them raw. “This kind of development could change Wyoming from a colonial economy to a value-added economy,” he said before a trip to Edmonton, Alberta last year to visit a $30 billion hydrocarbon processing complex called Industrial Heartland.

Lubnau and others also traveled to China last summer to see similar industrial sites.

How much water is there?

Fontenelle Reservoir can hold 345,317 acre-feet, about 40 percent of Wyoming’s share under the Colorado River Compact and associated laws. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to flood most of a football field a foot deep.) But without additional rip-rap, the bottom 80,000 acre feet can’t be drained.

If Wyoming were to add the armoring, “then we would have full access to the full 345,000 acre feet,” LaBonde said.

“It will involve millions of dollars,” he said of an armoring construction project. Whether the project would be funded through the usual Wyoming Water Development Office and vetted by the appointed citizen commission, “I don’t know at this time,” LaBonde said. Legislators could pay for a project through a direct appropriation.

Wyoming owns rights to 847,000 acre feet of Colorado River water annually, according to the 2011 Wyoming Water Development Office paper. But that’s constrained by myriad laws governing the highly regulated waterway. Wyoming and other upper basin states — Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — are essentially obliged to deliver 7.5 million acre feet annually to Lee’s Ferry, a gauging station below Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam. Wyoming’s share amounts to 14 percent of upper-basin rights, LaBonde said.

Upper-basin states have always met their obligation. But the future is uncertain.

“If for some reason the upper-basin states could not meet their obligation, a compact call could potentially happen,” LaBonde said. A “compact call,” would curtail upper-basin states’ use until they met their downstream obligations.

Fontenelle Reservoir in Sweetwater and Lincoln counties stretches 20 miles through arid southwest Wyoming, as seen in this photograph from space. NASA took the picture from the International Space Station in October, 2013. The blue cast is due to atmospheric haze. (NASA)

The holders of most recent water rights would be the first to feel the effects. “If their right was judged to be junior, their direct flow rights would be shut off.” LaBonde said. “In that type of scenario it would be very nice to be able to use water in Fontenelle Reservoir. It, in essence, acts as an insurance policy against extreme drought.”

Some industries already have water insurance policies. Four companies have bought Fontenelle water rights from Wyoming, the 2011 water office review said. PacifiCorp owns rights to 35,000 acre-feet for cooling at Jim Bridger Power Plant; FS Industries has 10,000 acre-feet for chemical fertilizer at Rock Springs; Church & Dwight Co. has 1,250 acre-feet for its “Arm and Hammer Baking Soda” plant near Green River; and Exxon has 300 acre-feet for domestic and natural gas work at its Shute Creek Plant.

These companies that have contracts totaling 46,550 acre-feet a year are making “readiness-to-serve” payments, the paper says. If there is a call for water from downstream states and industrial flows from the Green were cut off, the companies could draw on their contract reservations in Fontenelle. To date, they have never asked to actually use that water.

BOR: bill subject to other laws

At his hearing last week, Barrasso heard no objection from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to his bill. The measure would “amend the Colorado River Storage Project Act to authorize the use of the active capacity of the Fontenelle Reservoir,” Barrasso said.

Dionne Thompson, the BOR’s deputy commissioner for external and intergovernmental affairs, testified that the federal agency “does not oppose” the bill. Completing the armoring on the 139-foot-high dam would allow “further developing the State of Wyoming’s allocation of Colorado River water under the Colorado River Compact,” she said.

Thompson, however, had a list of “concerns,” that need to be addressed before Wyoming could launch a plan to upgrade the mile-long earthen embankment that holds back the Green River at Fontenelle Dam. Barrasso’s staff worked with the BOR to craft language that would fit into the existing Law of the River, as the Colorado River Compact and related laws are known.

Importantly, Barrasso’s bill wouldn’t give Wyoming a larger share of a finite resource. “It is unlikely that the Riprap Project will adversely affect other states dependent on the Colorado River or Mexico…” Thompson said. The bill “cannot permit Wyoming to expand its entitlements under the Colorado River Compact and the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact.”

The Bureau of Reclamation cautioned U.S. Sen. John Barrasso that it has obligations to provide 5,000 acre-feet of water to Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge annually, where these buck deer were photographed. Such obligations may limit the draining of Fontenelle Reservoir. (Tom Koerner/USFWS)

“There are some questions associated with operation and design that may limit the scope of the Riprap Project,” she said. “Reclamation has not studied the operation of Fontenelle Dam at the lower elevations proposed under the Riprap Project.”

Among those questions are how and whether water could be used when the reservoir is low. For example, the bureau is obligated to supply 5,000 acre-feet annually to the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge for fish and wildlife. “Without additional study Reclamation does not know whether it will be able to meet these flow requirements at lower reservoir levels,” Thompson said.

She had similar worries about generating electricity at the dam. “There would be periods when the power plant cannot be operated efficiently and when the power plant cannot be operated at all,” she said. But the bureau has contracts to supply power. “There is a potential for impacts to irrigators and municipalities that use Colorado River Storage Project power as well as to the members of the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association, which rely upon and purchase the power,” Thompson said.

Is the project justified?

A long-held water development principle is that new dams and reservoirs aren’t built without a certified purpose and need outlining beneficial use of the stored water. Because Wyoming doesn’t have a firm plan for unused Fontenelle water, that question could surface.

“One of the challenges is the federal agency might say ‘You haven’t ID’d a specific use,’” policy-advisor Cole said.

LaBonde believes Wyoming has a head start on that question. “If you’re building a new reservoir, you have to establish a purpose and need,” he said. “In the context of Fontenelle, that was authorized under Colorado River Storage Act. That storage is there and is authorized.”

Would the riprap project qualify as a beneficial use? “That’s a question that remains to be seen,” LaBonde said. The Bureau of Reclamation would analyze that through the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires reviews that produce environmental impact statements and similar planning documents and processes.

Fontenelle Dam almost failed soon after it was built and filled in 1965, but emergency action saved the day. After that, the Bureau of Reclamation used 203,500 sacks of cement to stop “piping” leaks that created the sinkhole, according to a presentation by University of Missouri-Rolla Geology and Engineering Department Chairman Karl F. Hasselmann and others. (University of Missouri)

“I’m sure that question will come up,” LaBonde said. “Because the storage already exists, we’re a step ahead. “We can certainly show Wyoming has [water] yet to develop under its Upper Colorado River Compact obligation. We should use all of those reasons to justify moving this project forward.

“In round numbers, Wyoming has developed about 500,000 acre feet,” of Colorado River rights he said. “We think there’s about 200,000 to 250,000 acre-feet to develop.”

For Mead and Cole, looking at regional drought makes the Fontenelle project a no-brainer. “One of exciting things about Fontenelle is some believe it would provide security to continue using existing rights even if other parts of the basin are in water stress,” Cole said.

“That reservoir is very much a protection to us to continue to use our water resources in the state of Wyoming as we currently do and enjoy,” he said. “Our best protection is to make sure we meet our obligations at Lees Ferry at Lake Powell. We have never failed to do so.” Fontenelle is “the tool that allows us to maintain that.”

LaBonde gives credit to Mead for pushing for Fontenelle armoring. “The origin or driving force behind this project is the governor’s water strategy and this is one of the initiatives in the strategy,” he said.

“ln a good water year, we can store that excess water,” LaBonde said. “Then in those bad years, you continue to draw on that stored water to meet your downstream obligation. The question is ‘do we want to be able to use that bottom portion [of Fontenelle] in some extreme drought scenario?’”

Barrasso’s bill, which would amend the Colorado River Storage Project Act, would allow federal investigations — paid for by Wyoming — to advance. But much remains to be studied before Fontenelle Reservoir would be drained and the 70-year-old dam-building project completed.

“We’ll just have to wait and see where the [National Environmental Policy Act] process goes,” LaBonde said.

This article has been corrected to say Barrasso’s bill would amend the Colorado River Storage Project Act, not the Colorado Compact — Ed.

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. “The federal commissioner of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy — a University of Wyoming grad and former Campbell County agent who championed dams — issued the stop order, a 1997 BOR history of the development says.”

    About a third of John McPhee’s book, “Conversations with the Arch Druid” is devoted to Floyd Dominy, who was an able advocate for many water projects throughout the Arid West.

    Don Bailey

  2. As Lake Powell and Lake Mead continue to drop, would Wyoming be better off economically if it sold 250,000 acre-feet of water to Phoenix and Tucson for some outrageous price? That way Wyoming would not have to cook up some kind of beneficial use of the water to justify their project. The State of Wyoming could avoid the destruction of wildlife habitat that would accompany the project, and could take the income from the sale of Fontenelle water and divide it among the residents of southwestern Wyoming kind of like the allocations native Alaskans receive.

    Bob Luce

  3. Big issue with many perturbations, most of which raise flags. I’m surprised that there is no mention of the on again-off again – never fully dead proposition to mine and process the oil shales. The Green River Basin formation near Wyoming’s southwest border between Evanston and Rock Springs have as much as 2 trillion barrels of hydrocarbon resource, but the recoverable amount is maybe 750 milion barrels at best . And it would require a H-U-G-E allotment of Green River water. It would rival the Alberta Tar Sands operation in northern Alberta at Fort MacMurray. Holding up that Alberta heartland industrial park as a model for a possible Wyoming project is an utterly terrifying thought on every level. I think it is cover for eventual Green River oil shale development on a massive scale… the cart before the horse. All other planned uses for Wyoming’s remaining Green River water get in line behind the 800 pound invisible gorilla of the oil shale.

    Thankfully , development of those shales is not even close to being economically feasible unless oil stays above $ 125.00 / bbl in price. Given immense downward pressure on crude oil prices for a variety of factors as far ahead as anyone can see , chances are the Green River shales will never advance to full scale production.

    I do not even want to see a pilot project. Even those are scary. Further, any excess undeveloped Green River water that Wyoming somehow manages to impound going forward would be mighty tempting to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. The entire Colorado River is overappropriated as is. Anyone who has designs on squeezing more water out of the Colorado river basin had best approach that with eyes wide open and ignore the rhetoric. The actual history of the BuRec and western water is a sordid one ; a false economy from beginning to end. And we want to engage in more of a hopelessly failed state of water development largesse?

    Entertaining as they may be, the Mad Max movies are not-so-subtle training films to subliminally prepare us for a world of scarce water.

    Dewey Vanderhoff