A technician measures flow in the Little Snake River near Dixon in 2018. (USGS)

Wyoming Game and Fish Department comments cast doubt on irrigators’ claims that a 264-foot-high dam proposed in Carbon County will benefit fisheries, riparian zones and wetland-wildlife habitats.

The dam proposed for the West Fork of Battle Creek above the Little Snake River on the Medicine Bow National Forest would provide 6,000 acre-feet of late-season irrigation to ranches near Baggs, Dixon and Savery and in Colorado. The 700-foot-long concrete dam and associated 130-acre reservoir would also provide a “minimum bypass flow” to improve fisheries in downstream creeks and rivers, according to the proposal.

The reservoir itself could be a “brood facility” and refuge for native Colorado River cutthroat trout, a species of conservation concern, the Wyoming Water Development Commission and others say.

As dam backers’ plans were opened to formal public review and comment earlier this year, however, critics challenged the rosy ecological picture and accounting of public benefits claimed by water developers.

Among these critics is Wyoming’s own Game and Fish Department, which says construction and operation of the dam would cause “substantial negative impacts on the aquatic and fisheries resources in the West Fork Battle Creek, Battle Creek and Little Snake River drainages.”

“The created wetlands and improved stream channel could also provide wetland and stream channel mitigation for the project.”

Sharon and Pat O’Toole

Even though mitigation efforts are “likely” to offset such impacts and may conserve and enhance fish and wildlife habitat, the wildlife agency expressed reservations about the project. 

“Given the complexity of ecological systems and inherent uncertainties about project operation and impacts and future climate and hydrology,” Game and Fish wrote in nine pages of comments, “it is not known if the proposed project will benefit fisheries, riparian, and wetland wildlife habitats, as suggested by the proponents.”

In-stream flow vs. bypass

Wyoming’s wildlife agency made its comments along with 935 other individuals and organizations as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency tasked with aiding agriculture on private lands, analyzes the project through an environmental impact statement. Eight hundred ninety-nine commenters opposed dam construction and an associated land swap with the Medicine Bow National Forest that would enable it.

Game and Fish offered six pages of recommendations for how to potentially alleviate some of the dam’s impacts. Those include a program to wipe out non-native trout from a network of creeks that extends about six miles upstream of the dam site. Colorado River cutthroat trout would then be planted in an artificial “brood facility” in the reservoir and upstream.

The valley in which the West Fork dam and reservoir would be constructed. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

In launching the plan to dam the West Fork of Battle Creek, dam backers declared benefits would accrue to “fisheries, riparian and wetland wildlife habitats, and water-associated recreation,” according to a legal notice published in the Federal Register.

“Ecological objectives … include improvements to aquatic ecosystems and riparian habitats by supplementing stream flows during low-flow periods, and … to terrestrial habitat associated with irrigation-induced wetlands,” the notice posted by the NRCS states. “Benefits are expected to accrue to these attributes [downstream] to the confluence with the Yampa River including improvements to both cold water and warm water sensitive species.”

Fisheries below the dam could benefit from 1,500 acre-feet earmarked for bypass flow, a 483-page Wyoming study says. Bypass water that would be released from the dam would maintain a minimum flow for about 4 miles downstream.

Nothing in the plan as currently written, however, would prevent any irrigator from taking water out of the creek below that point and using it for irrigation.

“Without an in-stream flow water right, once released from the bypass flow account in West Fork Reservoir, the water could be used or diverted for other purposes,” Jason Mead, interim director of the Wyoming Water Development Office wrote in an email. Nevertheless, “[m]ost of the water released solely for habitat flow purposes, according to hydrologic models, occurs during the non-irrigation season months,” Mead wrote. “[T]here are no irrigation diversions below the [proposed] West Fork Reservoir on the West Fork of Battle Creek or Battle Creek until it runs on to private land.”

‘Habitat units’

The 4.8-mile reach of Battle Creek that runs across private land would benefit from approximately 1,414 new fishery “habitat units” if the dam were built, according to Wyoming’s study. A “habitat unit” supports about one pound of trout per acre. Together, the new aquatic productivity “could facilitate additional private enterprise investment which could generate direct private fishing benefits of $144,228 annually,” the Wyoming Water Development Office says in the 2017 study.

That money would increase through an economic theory known as an “indirect benefit multiplier,” producing $379,320 in private benefits annually and $8.2 million over 50 years, Wyoming’s plan states.

Little Snake River agricultural lands along the Colorado-Wyoming border. Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

That, plus other “instream flow benefits,” are estimated to generate $35 million in public benefits in the dam’s half-century life, the WWDO study states. All told, the state forecasts $73 million in public benefits. That sum justifies the state paying for most of the 2017-estimated $80 million project price tag.

“Given the unique location of the West Fork Reservoir project, its most valuable recreation attribute may be its isolated location which provides a sense of solitude that some recreationalists seek and consider priceless,” the state study reads.

In a comment letter, downstream ranch owners Sharon and Pat O’Toole said the proposed dam “offers multiple benefits,” and would offset the city of Cheyenne’s water diversions from the Little Snake River Basin.

“An environmental benefit would include creating and enhancing wetlands and riparian habitats upstream from the West Fork Reservoir, and improving stream habitat to sequester copper and other metals” from an abandoned mine, the O’Tooles wrote. “The created wetlands and improved stream channel could also provide wetland and stream channel mitigation for the project.

“Our family owns all the private land on Battle Creek,” the couple wrote, adding that “in the lower reaches we have Colorado Cutthroat Trout,” along with other species.

“Haggerty Creek [above the site of the proposed reservoir] used to provide habitat for this species of interest, and could again, with the benefit provided by the dam. The proposed dam would offer value to the recreating public. It would provide a fishery on Haggerty Creek and downstream that does not presently exist.”

John Cobb, chairman of the Little Snake River Conservation District, an irrigation group, wrote that there are “many self-mitigating aspects of this [dam-building] alternative with the potential to drastically offset any potential negative impacts.” Dam construction could “result in a net benefit to the native ecosystems and human economies that thrive within the proposed service area of this project,” his comment reads.

The project would also contribute to the goals of the Colorado-based Yampa, White, Green Roundtable, a consortium of river users, according Jonathan Bowler, watermaster for the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District that applied to build the dam. Among those is a goal to develop a system to reduce water shortages and meet environmental and recreation needs, he said in a presentation to the group.

Professional, expert critique

In addition to Game and Fish comments on the plan, reaction includes reviews and criticism from angling and conservation groups.

Wyoming proposes to swap state property for federal land to enable construction, and budgets $594,000 of the estimated $80 million project cost for wetland and stream mitigation, public documents state.

Without endorsing construction, Wyoming Trout Unlimited recommended that any plan include funding for non-native brook trout removal and other conservation measures, Kathy Buchner, Wyoming TU Council chair and two other TU officers wrote. Other groups were more critical.

Water developers want to construct an $80 million, 264-foot-high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek south of Rawlins. This artist’s conception shows what the reservoir would look like in a Google Earth rendition. (Wyoming Water Development Office)

“Five years of construction will destroy the present aquatic habitat for all populations of vertebrate and invertebrate species and terrestrial wildlife habitat,” wrote Brian Smith, a former Wyoming water development technician who operated the nearby High Savery Dam and Reservoir where Game and Fish established a similar Colorado River cutthroat trout reserve. “Spawning migrations that have occurred [in and above Battle Creek] presumebly (sic) since the last ice age by CRCT will be terminated. The Little Snake River Drainage is one of only 3 in the State of Wyoming, where the CRCT exist.”

The nonprofit American Rivers also criticized the state plan saying the proposed project could threaten year-round water in the Belvidere Ditch upstream of the proposed reservoir. That ditch is “a WGFD stocking source of cutthroat trout,” and disruption there could harm “these valuable populations.”

Matt Rice, the group’s Colorado River Basin program director, said threats to the ditch could damage “one of the only remaining healthy populations of cutthroat trout [and] could perhaps push the species sufficiently to the brink to merit a federally endangered listing.” The dam would further reduce flows downstream, including in the Yampa River “with additional consequences for protection and recovery of pikeminnow and other sensitive species,” Rice wrote.

A promise of ecological benefits downstream is unsubstantiated, wrote Ben Beall, Friends of the Yampa president. He said that was “a questionable claim given the project’s stated primary purpose is to supply late season irrigation water and the limitation of capacity of the bypass account in the reservoir.”

Forest staffer worried

Worries about the dam’s impacts and a lack of critical review emerged well before the NRCS opened the issue for comments. When the Medicine Bow began preparing for a potential land swap two years ago, a staff hydrologist became alarmed that the dam’s effects wouldn’t be thoroughly analyzed.

The Medicine Bow distributed a briefing paper to its staff that included language “taken from the water development justifications/benefit promotional material and adopted by FS management/lands staff w/o consultation of fisheries professionals,” Medicine Bow hydrologist Dave Gloss wrote to colleagues.

The Medicine-Bow distributed the briefing paper after dam backers had held several meetings with national forest officials and put the bureaucratic wheels in motion for the land exchange, according to an email chain obtained by WyoFile through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“There is much more to the aquatics story,” Gloss wrote, “including the upstream reaches above the reservoir not supporting fish populations due to metals contamination and dewatering from an irrigation ditch, the in-reservoir and downstream trade-offs from altered flow, etc.

“If I could achieve one thing related to this project, it would be an honest and critical look at the social and environmental effects …” Gloss wrote.

He held out little hope for that “honest and critical” look. “There are a lot of factors in play making that approach very unlikely at the moment …” his email read.

A Medicine-Bow spokesman earlier this year wrote that Gloss’s worries are now unfounded. In briefing papers like the one Gloss complained about, “external opinions are encouraged to be included in the full range of information, as they help give situational awareness,” spokesman Aaron Voos wrote in an email. Information in the briefing paper was appropriately cited to make clear it came from project proponents, he wrote.

Further the Medicine Bow will consider the social and environmental effects of the dam and a wide range of public input and values for the public lands, water and resources involved, Voos wrote. “That will be accomplished with the EIS. We are a cooperating agency in that process and will be involved.”

The Medicine Bow, however, has no plans to peer-review Wyoming’s study of public benefits that justifies state funding of the dam, Voos wrote. The NRCS also said it will not peer-review the 483-page Wyoming Little Snake River final report of 2017.

“At this time we cannot say whether or not the Little Snake River Supplemental Storage Level II Phase II Study Report will be used in the land exchange feasibility analysis,” Voos wrote. “[H]owever, it could be used as a reference document during the feasibility analysis or at other points in the land exchange and NEPA processes.”

We corrected the first name of hydrologist Gloss in this story — Ed.

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. Public money to benefit a very few private ranches. Funny how the Ag industry doesn’t want any government regulation or oversight, but rushes to the front of the line to get taxpayers money for water, improvements, and subsidies. The Water Development Commission should only prioritize and fund projects that directly benefit communities and a hundreds or thousands of Wyoming residents. Many Wyoming communities are running short of water and don’t have supply to grow or pursue economic diversification or development. This project doesn’t appear to address any critical need. Very puzzling choice for scarce state water development funds.

  2. This seems to be a well researched article that presents a variety of perspectives on the issue. However, it is erroneous and unfair to call the Little Snake River Conservation District, or any Conservation District “an irrigation group”, as the author does in this article. Conservation Districts starting being formed in the 1930s and 40s in response to natural resource issues caused by the Dust Bowl, working closely with the Soil Conservation Service, now called the Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS. Conservation Districts are a subdivision of local government, some funded by mill levies, governed by a group of elected Supervisors. The Districts work with landowners on locally led, incentive driven solutions to natural resource issues. While one aspect of this work might be helping farmers and ranchers improve the efficiency of irrigation systems, it is just as likely to be sponsoring tree seedling sales, putting on garden expos for rural and urban stakeholders, or teaching school children how their local watershed functions. Any modern Conservation District is much more than just “an irrigation group”.

  3. The MBRT hydrologist is Dave Gloss, not Bill Gloss. Dave makes a valid point about “having an honest conversation” about this project’s putative benefits and detriments. The forum for that conversation may be federal court.

  4. After watching this project planning evolve, I’m still stuck trying to find how this benefits the public, hunters or anglers. I don’t see any downstream irrigators giving up stream access for public use. I also don’t see added areas for hunters, or better access to isolated parcels of public land. Nor do I see new lands set aside for big game winter range. Yet I see the public shelling out 80 million dollars to the benefit of a small handful of Wyoming irrigators.
    I’m not against dams. I can point to enormous benefits to anglers, hunters and public access proponents from a number of dams located throughout Wyoming. But when I look at this project, I can only continue to struggle, trying to answer the question of what’s in it for the average Wyoming resident? The little guy who doesn’t own a big ranch. The guy who works all week, struggles to pay his bills, and can hardly wait to spend the weekends in the mountains. What’s in this project for him or her? Best I can tell the answer is nothing at all.

    1. We often don’t see eye to eye on some of our comments. However, I’m with you. I don’t see a benefit to the average wyoming resident except for a select few.

      Good analysis

  5. Thank you Angus for shining the light of day on this proposal. It concerns me that so many agencies have climbed on board without considering the wishes and best interests of their constituents. Jason Crowder recently pointed out that state lands exist solely to generate revenue for state schools. How does this land exchange meet this criteria for the schools? And even if it did, how does the exchange benefit the citizens that use that portion of the Medicine Bow National Forest? Yet, that exchange was in play long before talking to the public. I’ve often noticed that if you are an elected official you have a disproportionate voice at the table to promote your own agenda. The press helps ensure that that voice is balanced with the weight of public opinion. In this case public opinion has said no to this proposed dam.

  6. One only has to read the fishery boasts of increased Cutthroat habitat 30 years ago in promoting the Savery Reservoir, and compare them to the results on Cutthroat supposedly enhanced habitat above and below the Savery Dam. Their habitat wasn’t broken and the dam did not enhance their habitat above the dam. I know of no study that has tested that boast in the 16 miles below the Savery Reservoir on its way to the Little Snake. The Savery Reservoir itself does not provide any sort of hatchery for a fish that reproduces in fast moving clean streams naturally “since the last ice age.” And the G&F kill-off of non-native trout and native suckers and other species, roundly criticized by the private land owners and close neighbors above and close to the Savery Reservoir did not create more cutthroat habitat. The Savery Reservoir is a strange place full of aging Tiger trout, salmon, non-native trout and very few stocked hatchery Cutthroat (albeit great for recreational fishing with access from Hwy 401). Upstream of the Savery Dam is one of the other three natural – hopefully still pure – native cutthroat populations.
    Stocking the reservoir with hatchery cutthroat, and a neighbor upstream with hatchery cutthroat stocked ponds (and the WYGF placement of hatchery cuttthroat in Hatch Creek) endangered and endagers the phenotypically pure native fish. Hatchery cutthroat may be “genetically” the same but they did not spend 20,000 years in the creek, and could forever change this fragile population by a bird drop, a clogged culvert on Hwy. 401 backing up Dirtyman creek (about a dozen years ago with hatchery cutthroat flushed by a neighbor’s stocked pond) is way too close to the weirs placed by WYGF to protect that rare pure population.
    Instead of a spending $594,000 to improve watersheds upstream of the poorly designed Battle Creek reservoir, use that money and re-do the much more advanced and rapid genetic and phenotypic comparisons now available between the dwindling native pure populations of cutthroat with the cutthroat in Hatch Creek, Dirtyman above and below the weirs and the Savery Reservoir, and in the Savery reservoir. I doubt there will be good news.
    And I very much doubt the Battle Creek dam will do better at saving pure cutthroat than the Savery Dam. I cannot argue land swaps and water retension and irrigation improvement. The latter being improved for a very few Wyoming and Colorado landowners. Improving irrigation later in the haying season by “stabilizing” the stream flow is nice I guess, but as a part of a ranch that has been irrigating since 1904, I’m not sure increased hay production for a few is worth the ecological risks.

    1. Cindy: Awesome comments – the best I’ve so far on this issue. Please continue to be actively engaged/involved especially with State and Federal decision makers – you can make a difference.

      1. Thank you. I sent without proofing. My sib and I were actively involved pre Savery. We didn’t build in Saratoga until 2001, so flewin for G&F meeting. As a NIH resource competition researcher, albeit in microbiology biolfims, none of the fish claims made sense. It is good to hold Wyoming water on Wyoming land, and I support the healthy habitat irrigation and rotational grazing provides for our summer cows above the dam. But these pure cutthroat populations are gone if a hatchery fish co- mingles. It annoys me when the fish are used as a reason for reservoirs. Conservation easements yes. I was glad G&F has sought to protect breeding habitat for native fish.

  7. The ranching community continues in its endless attempts to get its hands on public funds.

    The plan is to grow more hay for cows. Haven’t we done enough?

    Devote the money to mental health for a true social benefit.

  8. it’s easy to be a critic.
    this project would keep wyoming water in wyoming.

    the down stream flow benefits the swimming pools & golf courses of the dilettante’s
    that have overpopulated the blue desert.