Wyoming would expand the Upper Leavitt Reservoir near Shell at a cost of $41 million. Much of the area's landscape would be arid without irrigation like that supplied by the reservoir behind participants in a Wyoming Water Development Office tour. Jason Mead, deputy director for the dam and reservoirs section, addresses the group. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Wyoming lawmakers will consider spending $88 million on four major dam projects that advance Gov. Matt Mead’s plan to construct 10 water storage projects in a decade.

If approved by the Legislature, the money would build the Alkali Creek dam north of Hyattville and reconstruct the unsafe Middle Piney dam near Big Piney. State funds also would enlarge the Big Sandy Reservoir near Farson and the Upper Leavitt Reservoir north of Shell.

“Water development must remain a priority,” Mead said in his State of the State address Wednesday, calling water “our most precious resource.”

Omnibus water construction bill HB-86 marks the first time an account created in 2005 to divert mineral taxes for water storage would fund dam construction, Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said. All told, the bill calls for spending $88.1 million on the four dams. Another $8.4 million is earmarked for planning.

As a result the legislation this year would spend $96.5 million from the special “dams and reservoirs” account: Water Development Account III. That account currently holds  $151.7 million.

The most expensive project, the Leavitt enlargement would cost $41 million.  Thirty-nine million dollars, or 95.5 percent, will be grant money from the state, the rest a loan to irrigators. Next most expensive, the Alkali Creek dam, would cost $35 million, 94 percent of which would be a grant, $2.1 million a loan to irrigators.

“It does sound expensive but that is the going rate,” LaBonde said. “That is the cost to build an impoundment and store water.”

Reservoirs would irrigate 155 square miles

The four major dam projects will benefit irrigators across 155 square miles, according to calculations made by WyoFile from Water Development Office data. The four projects will add 27,231 acre feet of storage in the Green River and Bighorn River watersheds, mostly to benefit farmers and ranchers in irrigation districts.

The projects will provide additional benefits, including flood control and wetland creation. At Alkali Creek and Leavitt Reservoir, the reservoirs will always have some water in them to hold fish. Both also would be used for recreation, including boating.

Nevertheless, with a $400 million education funding crisis looming, some have questioned how sacred the sacred cow of Wyoming water development should be.

“The reality is that these projects are of marginal benefit to the state as a whole, they benefit only a small handful of citizens,” Lawrence Wolfe, a Cheyenne attorney and longtime energy industry lobbyist, wrote in comments to an education funding white paper. Lawmaker Cathy Connolly (D, HD-13, Laramie) said it’s time to “open up all the coffee cans, and open up the statute books, and take a good hard look.”

Pivot irrigation on the Mercer ranch near Hyattville grows feed for a herd of Angus cattle, along with malt and barley for Coors. The proposed $35-million Alkali Creek dam and reservoir, which would flood some of the land in the background, would benefit 241 landowners. Mercer supports a dam on his property. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Seen in that critical light, three of the major dam projects will aid 576 individual landowners, according to Water Development Office documents. (One summary doesn’t say how many landowners might benefit from the fourth — the Middle Piney Dam reconstruction.) That breaks down to a $160,000 direct state subsidy per landowner. That figure counts $78.9 million in construction grants and $13.2 million in previous planning costs but does not include loans, according to WyoFile calculations. Individual irrigators join together in irrigation districts or other legal entities to request and receive state funds.

If history is a guide, it’s highly unlikely the two omnibus water bills facing the Legislature would see any significant challenge. Formulated after years of planning on specific projects, the funding requests are vetted first by the Wyoming Water Development Commission and then by the legislature’s Select Water Committee in advance of the annual lawmaking session.

The bills would appropriate money already collected and earmarked for water development. Potential changes to that earmark — like giving the Appropriations Committee more power to shift funds among water accounts — have proved sensitive. That idea brought a warning from Sen. Larry Hicks (R, SD-11, Baggs). “Here’s the thing we’re going to have to watch,” he said at a committee meeting last week, “is that those appropriation guys don’t siphon that money out and use it for something else.”

But the Legislature has tapped the water funds — specifically, the dams and reservoirs account, Water Account III — in recent years. In 2015, the Legislature moved $10 million from that account to the General Fund.

The four big Wyoming dam projects

Of the four big Wyoming dam projects, the Alkali Creek dam and Leavitt Reservoir dwarf the others.  Alkali Creek would be built from scratch on an intermittent stream with $32 million in state grants and $2.1 million in loans.

The project above Hyattville would see a 108-foot high dam that would be 2,600 feet long, impounding 7,994 acre-feet over 294 acres. The reservoir would use water diverted from Paint Rock and Medicine Lodge creeks, would reduce annual shortages in the Nowood drainage by 22 percent, and aid 241 landowners. Roughly half of the 294-acre lake would be on property owned by the Martin Mercer family, the rest on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land.

The Upper Leavitt Reservoir would be expanded with $39 million in grant money, $1.7 million in loans. It would hold 6,604 acre-feet — 10 times the capacity of the existing pool — and cover 194 acres. The 1,800-foot long dam would divert water from Beaver Creek out of the creek channel to an upland site to serve more than 11,000 acres. The project would create 34 more acres of wetlands than now exist. A total of 210 landowning irrigators would benefit.

Big Sandy Reservoir enlargement calls for a $6.7 million grant plus a $1.6 million loan for the impoundment astride the Big Sandy River. The plan calls for the Bureau of Reclamation — the dam’s owner — to raise the dam spillway using Wyoming money. Similar arrangements have occurred in the past. The enlargement would occur in the Greater South Pass Sage Grouse Core Area where disruption of sagebrush is limited.

Larry Hicks (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“We’re the lead agency working to make sure our impacts are minimal,” LaBonde said.

Big Sandy Reservoir straddles Sublette and Sweetwater county lines. Enlargement would benefit 125 irrigating landowners.

The Middle Piney reservoir was plagued with problems when constructed in 1940 on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Officials deemed the on-channel structure unsafe and landowners with rights to the stored water gave those up by 2000. “Over time, because the reservoir had seepage problems and safety of dams issues — all of those landowners gave or transferred water rights to the Forest Service,” the water development office wrote in a description. Project outlines don’t say how many or who would benefit.

The Middle Piney Reservoir would cost $12.2 million to rebuild, but the state is still resolving issues with the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Among them are the ownership of potential rights to stored water, and liability for any dam failure.

“We’re still trying to figure all that out,” said Don Kranendonk, the district ranger for the Big Piney Ranger District. “Sometimes those things take longer than we like. Some of the areas that are frustrating to the state are our caution with policy.”

Feds, state disagree over New Fork Lake Dam enlargement

Senate File 56 for water planning proposes $14.6 million for study and enlargement at New Fork Lake Dam, among others. Of that, lawmakers will be asked to appropriate $450,000 for the New Fork project in the Wind River Range near Pinedale. The Legislature appropriated $300,000 for an initial study which has yet to be completed and released to the public.

Wyoming and the Bridger-Teton National Forest, where New Fork Lake is located, have different views about the feasibility of increasing water storage at the site. LaBonde’s office has told lawmakers the project could get the green light, but the federal government says Wyoming should look to build new storage on private rather than forest lands.

New Fork Lake was enlarged decades ago with a small dam that now needs repairs. “This project is focused specifically on adding storage,”  LaBonde said. Ninety-four landowners irrigating 14,612 acres in the New Fork Irrigation District asked the state for more water and the project would make another 9,400 acre feet available

Although the initial study remains under wraps, LaBonde’s office summarized the pending investigation to lawmakers and the Wyoming Water Development Commission. Instead of raising the existing dam, the preferred option would be to permit irrigators to drain more of the natural lake the summary says. That would require construction work to lower the irrigation outlet, but would not require raising the dam.

The summary also predicts the pending study will outline a path to completing the project. “No fatal flaws were encountered in the structural, geotechnical, or environmental analysis conducted on the top three alternatives,” the summary says. “Additional storage in the basin appears technically feasible and likely permittable.”

New Fork Lake at the edge of the Bridger Wilderness is one location where the state is considering enlarging an outlet dam to impound more water. The U.S. Forest Service has asked the state to justify using federal property instead of private land, saying many federal resources could be affected by Wyoming’s proposal. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile).

The pending study has not been released, in part because comments by the Bridger-Teton National Forest haven’t been addressed, LaBonde said.

Although the study claims additional storage in the basin appears “likely permittable,” those federal comments say Wyoming may have to look to private lands for a reservoir site.

“All projects proposed on federal lands require the appropriate level of environmental analysis, including full analysis of all possible alternatives located on or off federal lands,” the Bridger-Teton wrote. After initial review, “the study does not appear to fully analyze affects and costs associated with alternatives located on the National Forest vs. alternatives located off the Forest.”

Pinedale District Ranger Rob Hoelscher said the state would need a special use permit, which must meet certain requirements. “If an activity could occur on private land, then that’s where it should occur,” he said.

Any development — raising or lowering New Fork Lake — “has potential to affect many resources, including Engineering, Hydrology, Water Rights, Archeology, Soils, Recreation, Wildlife, Fisheries, Botany, Range, Planning, and Lands,” the Bridger-Teton said. The lake shoreline is within 400 feet of a wilderness boundary, according to maps.

State re-applying for forest cloud seeding permit

The Senate bill also provides funding for Wyoming to try again to get permission from the U.S. Forest Service for cloud seeding in the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre mountains. Wyoming wants to convert a controversial 10-year experimental program into an operational one.

But the Forest Service rejected a special use permit, LaBonde said. “They have a regulation that prohibits the long-term climate change or weather change in wilderness areas,” he said. “They said ‘We can’t allow the program,’” The two ranges have four congressionally-protected wilderness areas where natural forces are supposed to reign.

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The WDC has responded, LaBonde said, telling the federal agency, “We’re not going to significantly change the precipitation in these wilderness areas — that change will be within the natural variability of the climate those Wilderness areas [have] now. We’re hoping they view that as not a long-term climate change program but enhancement of precipitation.”

Also, Wyoming will seek only a 15-year permit instead of the previously envisioned 30-year one.

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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