Water developers want the Legislature to construct an $80 million, 280-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)

Wyoming’s efforts to build a 280-foot-high dam above the Little Snake River near the border of Colorado are “picking … back up,” after backers received a $1.2 million federal grant, the director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission said last week.

The funds, to be matched by Wyoming, will help consultants prepare federal environmental reviews. Planned for the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County, the estimated $82 million dam and 10,000-acre-foot reservoir would be constructed in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

The dam on the tributary of the Little Snake River would serve 67 to 100 irrigators by providing late-season water. Irrigators are unable to finance the project, so 91% of the costs would be borne by Wyoming, a formula backers say is justified because the structure would produce $73.7 million in public benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service in 2019 approved a $1.25 million grant to the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District and the neighboring Colorado Pothook Water Conservancy District to boost the project, according to federal records. The grant requires a matching contribution.

“It became a little bit dormant for a while,” Water Development Office Director Brandon Gebhart told members of the state water commission Thursday as he described the project. The grant will help consultants decide whether to pursue a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service or try to construct and operate the facility through permits.

Previously rebuffed

The project faced scrutiny and criticism in the Legislature in 2018 when backers sought $40 million in construction funds. Lawmakers appropriated only $4.7 million, requiring none of the money be spent until two conditions were met.

One was securing “additional funding commitments from project beneficiaries in both Wyoming and Colorado on a pro-rata basis.” The second string the legislature attached required legislative approval before any of the 2018 appropriation be spent.

The confluence of Battle Creek and the Little Snake River on the border of Wyoming and Colorado is agriculture country with an abundance of nearby public lands, wildlife and natural features. (Google Earth)

 

Water director Gebhart acknowledged the 2018 legislative caveats. “We’re being diligent to ensure that the work that we do … follows statutory limitations we may have,” he said.

In addition to the $4.7 million 2018 appropriation, the West Fork account had some $6 million already appropriated in 2013, for a total of $10.9 million. The earlier appropriation did not include requirements for cost sharing with Colorado or for further legislative approval.

“The work we’re continuing is under this 2013 appropriation,” Gebhart told commissioners. “We’re progressing with the prior appropriation and using the statute language in that to move on.”

Lawmakers became wary of the dam project because of its cost, its location and the small number of Wyoming irrigators it would serve. Critics said it would only irrigate an additional 2,000 acres or so. 

“It’s just pork,” William “Jeb” Steward, an Encampment resident and former state representative, said in 2017.

Dormancy has not diminished Wyoming’s imagined support for building the dam. 

A Feb. 24 memo to commission members described Wyoming’s historic engagement with Colorado officials but with a contemporary revision. “All entities expressed support for additional storage in the Little Snake/Yampa River drainages and support for the West Fork project,” the memo reads.

But that statement mischaracterizes Colorado’s position, said Cody Perry, vice president of Friends of the Yampa. The Little Snake River flows along the Wyoming/Colorado border and into the Yampa, a tributary of the Green River.

Wyoming tried to get the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to endorse the project in 2018. But that group would not sign a proposed letter backing the dam and reservoir.

Instead, the Roundtable said it would need to see the dam proposal “in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”

“The [Roundtable] membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration…” the Colorado group’s letter stated. 

Three members of the Colorado roundtable said the group’s position has not changed since 2018.

The Wyoming and Colorado conservancy districts, plus the state’s consultant and NEPA liaison, are meeting with federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service, “trying to pick the best path forward,” Gebhart said. Federal agencies this week did not respond with updates.

Some West Fork Dam supporters want a land exchange, believing such a deal would exempt the project from some aspects of the demanding NEPA process, likely making it easier to accomplish.

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The Water Development Commission last week extended a planning contract for the project through the end of 2022. It had been set to expire June 30, 2021.

“Due to the COVID last year, we’re a little behind,” Bob Davis, a member of the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District Board, told commission members. “We’re trying to catch gears and get caught up and have a very busy summer with this NEPA process.”

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 was on the ground in Idaho hours after the 1976 Teton Dam disaster. Houses and farm buildings carried miles downstream. Railroad track twisted like a mean little kid tore into his HO layout. Death and destruction. Government ineptness. It was never rebuilt. Were lessons learned? Seems like it would be cheaper and more sane to just buy water rights elsewhere for the handful of irrigators that will benefit from this proposed boondoggle.h

  2. Face it, Wyoming suffers from a hopeless, terminal, case…of stupidity. Most legislators who choose to run again will be reelected, by landslides. People here live only in a past that never really existed. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

  3. Dewey’s right – the Greybull Valley Irrigation district is what a successful project looks like. Please note that the GVID converted semi-arid to desert land into highly productive ag land which is capable of producing sugar beets and barley – not just alfalfa for livestock. The original Big Horn Basin land was even marginal grazing land before conversion to irrigation. The Little Snake River project doesn’t seem to rise to this level – and wouldn’t it primarily be used for alfalfa and hay production?? Alfalfa production does benefit wildlife to a great degree not just livestock and sage grouse utilize it during the brood raising season so there are other benefits. However, GVID is 100% in Wyoming and greatly diversifies the local economy away from total dependence on the oil/gas industry.

  4. The Greybull Valley Irrigation District near Meeteetse owns and operates three fairly large dams…Upper and Lower Sunshine and Roach Gulch which collectively store 140,000 acrefeet of water and irrigate about 75,000 acres in the Meeteetse-Burlington riverlands in Park and Big Horn counties The GVID co-op serves a great many more irrigators than the proposed Little Snake project

    The GVID irrigators own their dams collectively and cooperatively. Use that business model instead. State monies fronted to build the Little Snake Dam should be paid back directly , with interest . No grants; certainly no pork. If it’s a worthwhile project it should have no problem paying for itself , given time. Right ?

  5. More cowboy welfare at the expense of the public. These wealthy ranchers/farmers need to pay for all of it.

  6. Can’t find the money or support for Medicaid expansion that would benefit hospitals and thousands of people in Wyoming but this boondoggle of a dam just keeps sucking up precious funds. Amazing.

  7. I wonder how many kids would benefit if nearly $80 million was dedicated to offset propsed school budgets? Surely more than 67-100.

  8. We are told here:

    https://www.wyofile.com/73-million-public-benefits-said-justify-dam/

    that this dam will cost the state ~$80 million up front and will deliver ~$78 million in “public benefits” over a 50 year life. The $80 million includes a state loan extended to irrigators to finance their portion of the cost. Irrigators are expected to shoulder (through the state loan) only ~$6.4 million of the dam’s cost even though they accrue $19 million in benefits.

    Assuming that public benefits started immediately, that interest rates average 5% over the 50 year life of the dam, and that public benefits are evenly distributed over the 50 year life at $1.56 million/yr, the present value of what is essentially an annuity is only about $18.5 million.

    In other words, the total value today of all public benefits expected to be generated by this dam over 50 years is only about $18.5 million. Even this result depends on MANY sometimes highly optimistic assumptions proving valid over a 50 year time frame – good luck with that.

    Obviously this compares poorly to the State’s upfront obligation of $73 million plus another $7 million of state cash expended in loans to farmers.

    In contrast, the 60 or 70 irrigators who benefit from the dam will receive $19 million in direct benefits in return for taking out $7 million in what I assume are long-term (~50 year) state loans.

    It’s hard to see this as anything other than a blatant giveaway to well-heeled land owners (and no doubt heavy political contributors) dressed up as a public benefit.

    You can put lipstick on a pig, put a string of pearls around its neck, and dress it in a nice skirt. But it’s still just a pig.