Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge below Fontenelle Reservoir was created to offset the environmental impacts of the impoundment. Consequently, a project to improve the dam so all of the water behind it can be used (today only about half can be released without threatening the structure) would not come with the usual mitigation costs associated with creating new useable water storage. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Gov. Matt Mead’s water survey seeking opinions on what initiatives the state might pursue brought little support for a new dam on the Green River.

The statewide online survey closed Aug. 4 and drew more than 600 responses, said Nephi Cole, a policy advisor for the governor. In addition 10,017 people sent emails as part of a campaign against damming the longest tributary of the Colorado River, a conservation group said.

The survey asked residents to rank more than 50 potential initiatives the state could undertake as part of its water strategy. Among them was a proposal to build a dam on the Green River at Warren Bridge and another where the river crosses the Bridger-Teton National Forest boundary north of Cora.

Green River irrigation drainages

“Discussion on the two dams indicated it wasn’t a very popular idea,” Cole said last week. “They were at the bottom of the list. Dams on the upper Green don’t make sense in terms of consensus and bang for your buck.”

Another potential initiative that’s generated controversy in the past was for a trans-basin diversion of water from the Green River to eastern Wyoming. Originally proposed by entrepreneur Aaron Million to move water to Colorado’s Front Range, it appeared on the state survey as a way to supplement water resources in eastern Wyoming.

“It really didn’t have any momentum,” Cole said.

The survey showed some initiatives are popular, Cole said, including the “Ten-in-Ten Project” that would construct or expand 10 reservoirs in the next decade. The construction would be spread across the state, the largest project capable of holding 11,300 acre-feet.

An initiative that would upgrade the Fontenelle Dam on the Green River near Big Piney also ranked well. Modifications would enable use of all of the reservoir’s capacity.

Fontenelle holds 345,360 acre-feet. But only 150,500 can be drained before exposing the upstream face of the dam to eroding wave action. Only the top half of the face was armored during construction; proposed modifications would complete the job.

Wyoming residents also heavily supported a restoration initiative along the North Platte River, Cole said, expanding on ongoing efforts in Casper, Saratoga and Douglas. There’s also backing to control invasive species and promote cottonwood reforestation. Creation of a “major conveyance task force” would seek to leverage funds to improve aging irrigation canals statewide, including work to protect fish.

Final list under consideration

Mead hopes to have a handful — perhaps 10 initiatives — selected before he drafts his proposed budget later this year, Cole said. Which of the top initiatives advances is uncertain, as the administration has to vet them and ensure what’s chosen doesn’t overburden a single agency.

Thomas Moran’s “Cliffs of Green River,” painted in 1874, shows a familiar sight in the town of Green River. Downstream from here the Green River flows out of Wyoming, today carrying some 200,000 acre-feet of water annually that the state owns but does not put to “beneficial use.” (Amos Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas )
Thomas Moran’s “Cliffs of Green River,” painted in 1874, shows a familiar sight in the town of Green River. Downstream from here the Green River flows out of Wyoming, today carrying some 200,000 acre-feet of water annually that the state owns but does not put to “beneficial use.” (Amos Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas )

“We’ll be poking holes in these, we’ll throw tomatoes at these now so we don’t take tomatoes later,” Cole said. Successful initiatives are ones that would “do something that’s good for a lot of people, not one person.”

American Rivers, a conservation group that led one letter-writing campaign against damming the Green River, was pleased with the response that it got from some of its more than 200,000 members, said Scott Bosse, northern Rockies representative for the group. Ten thousand and seventeen people wrote Gov. Mead as part of the campaign, he said.

American Rivers asked people to say a dam would “irreparably harm fish and wildlife, flood one of the state’s most popular fishing and hunting grounds, inundate private property, and submerge valuable livestock grazing lands.”

“It was one of our most successful conservation alerts in many years in terms of the number of people who responded,” Bosse said. “Our goal was to make sure the State of Wyoming and Gov. Mead do not look to the upper Green River to address Wyoming’s future water supply needs. There are countless ways to meet Wyoming’s needs without damming up the upper Green River on public lands.”

Letters came from every state in the Union, plus England, Australia and New Zealand, policy advisor Cole said. “That’s very interesting to us,” he said. “People care about Wyoming’s water.”

Wyoming Outdoor Council also launched a campaign opposing the Green River dams and urging people to participate in the survey, said Amber Wilson, environmental quality coordinator with the advocacy group in Lander. Among the environmental obstacles to the dams are the endangered Kendall Warm Springs Dace and areas critical to the ancient migratory path that pronghorn and mule deer use to move to and from Grand Teton National Park, she said.

Additional water storage is certainly part of Wyoming’s future through the Ten-in-Ten Project and potential Fontenelle upgrade. The Wyoming Water Development Office lists 11 projects on which it is currently working, likely the template for Ten-in-Ten.

[Click here to see the list.]

They would be located in Carbon, Sweetwater, Johnson, Hot Springs, Sublette, Big Horn, Sheridan, and Lincoln counties.

The Fontenelle project — armoring the bottom half of the dam’s upstream face to increase available storage by some 200,000 acre feet, “really makes a lot of sense,” Cole said. The effort wouldn’t change the reservoir’s footprint.

Mitigation —  creation of Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge —  already has been completed. That means the state could avoid the cost of replacing wetlands and other environmental requirements if it were to build a new impoundment. It would cost on the order of $10 million to upgrade Fontenelle Dam compared to half a billion dollars to build a new one on the Green, he said.

“We can spend our own money on this,” Cole said of Fontenelle. “We’re not asking for money (from the federal government). That puts us in a neat position as partners,” with the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the structure.

Wyoming has Green River water to use

Wyoming has water to store on the Green River, according to Cole.

“We are in the enviable position of being one of the few states on the Colorado River (system) where we don’t use all we could possibly use,” Cole said. But what’s available still has to be computed.

Green River impoundments

“We don’t know exactly how much,” he said. “It is safe to say some 200,000 to 300,000 acre-feet belongs to Wyoming that we don’t beneficially use.”

Wyoming lawmakers are considering whether the state could develop an industrial site in the Rock Springs-Green River area that could make commercial products from regional supplies of everything from coal to natural gas, electricity, water and trona.

Toward that end, legislators early this year traveled to Edmonton, Alberta where they toured the $30 billion hydrocarbon processing complex called Industrial Heartland, which could serve as a model. The $30 billion project was developed with a number of public and private partners.

During a trip to China this summer to see similar industrial sites, Wyoming legislators again referred to potential use of the state’s Green River water.

The Colorado River Compact guarantees Wyoming’s allocation, even if it is not put to use, Cole said. But that guarantee “could be considered tenuous. There are very powerful neighbors.”

Those looking to build impoundments could find support in the proposed Water Supply Permitting Coordination Act introduced by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso and U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis earlier this year. It would streamline permitting process, consolidate those activities under the Bureau of Reclamation and give local opinions more sway. A U.S. House committee advanced it in September but Congress has since adjourned.

“In Wyoming, farmers and ranchers have to have a reliable and plentiful supply of water in order to keep their livestock and crops healthy,” Barrasso said in a statement in June. “When they need to build new water storage projects, they now face a maze of red tape that requires never-ending approvals from a list of federal agencies.”

Rancher Patrick O’Toole, a former state legislator from the Little Snake River Valley, testified earlier in the year in favor of the legislation. He said the 22,000 acre-foot High Savery Dam took only two years to build but more than 14 years to permit.

“We believe the effect of this provision would be to provide equal footing for state agencies with all federal agencies, including contributions to and evaluation of the unified environmental document …” O’Toole testified. The act is necessary “to mitigate for the water that has been reallocated away from agriculture towards growing urban, power, environmental and recreational demands in recent decades,” he said.

A lost opportunity?

Meanwhile, the state may have lost a chance to fund projects that take advantage of rivers’ natural functions, American Rivers’ Bosse said. That happened when Congress was forming and debating the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.

It directs millions of dollars toward wetland restoration and similar programs to reduce flood risks amidst increasingly volatile weather in the Northern Rockies, Bosse said. Up to $70 million would be available annually as part of a cost-sharing deal, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle of Montana, where some of the benefits could be seen.

“Wyoming was offered the opportunity to be included in that legislation, but there just was not sufficient interest from the congressional delegation,” Bosse said.

Representatives from Barrasso and Lummis’ office did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Enzi said he would not respond to WyoFile.

Among the potential initiatives in Gov. Mead’s water survey, the strong support for work on the North Platte surprised policy advisor Cole, he said. “I didn’t expect that one to be the top one on the list.”

Many other survey proposals are still being considered. Groundwater protection, particularly in response to contamination from a missile silo in eastern Wyoming but also with regard to septic systems, was another important topic.

Non-federal North Platte River reservoirs above Pathfinder Basin

Survey respondents complained about hydropower rates and how irrigators are charged one price for electricity they consume but are paid less for power they might generate.  Creation of a uniform hydrographer’s handbook to guide water masters through disputes also drew support.

“The idea is you could [outline] water law for non-lawyers so they have a common reference they can go to,” Cole said.

Wilson and the Wyoming Outdoor Council have their favorites. She said she hopes four proposed initiatives make it through to the action phase, including one that would require protection for threatened groundwater aquifers.

The goal is to automatically make aquifers where use outstrips availability “groundwater control areas” subject to stricter regulation. Today, such designations are not mandatory, Wilson said.

The state also needs a unified public database in which water quality and quantity information is available. Wyoming’s information is currently “scattered among offices and filing cabinets,” she said.

When granting a permit for a well, for example, “it would be good to know the status of that current water supply and whether giving that permit is good idea or a bad idea,” Wilson said. “Now the decision process is more difficult and perhaps less informed.”

The Wyoming Outdoor Council also backs an initiative calling for credible climate and streamflow data. It seeks policies that would protect water rights when an irrigator requests to transfer use for a temporary period.

“People shouldn’t feel they have to dump the water on their land even if they’re not using it,” she said.

One question and answer has been left out of the discussion, Bosse said.

“The biggest thing that was missing in that survey was a real needs assessment,” he said. “How much new water does Wyoming need in the next 20 years and where exactly is that water needed?”

Related stories:
— “Mead wants feedback on more Wyoming dams,” June 24, 2014
— “The Big Drain,” November, 2011
— “State lawmakers Canada-bound to tour energy complex as model for Wyoming,” February, 2014

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. “Dams on the upper Green don’t make sense in terms of consensus and bang for your buck.”

    No kidding? WTF is wrong with these people? This area is one of the most prestigious areas in the US and we’d totally ruin it if it had bang for you buck?? Get outta here.

  2. At some point in the past year I recall reading an article which stated energy companies were quietly acquiring ( or trying to acquire) water rights in southwest Wyoming . Many tens of thousands of acre-feet. This was in the context of the vast Green River Oil Shale deposits situated where Wyoming , Utah, and Colorado conjoin. Which gives one pause when also considering the monstrous Alberta Canada oil shale development near Fort MacMurray that plunders so much of that region’s surface water, among other issues.

    The greatest demand for Wyoming’s unused 250,000 acre-feet in the Upper Green will be from the Desert Southwest. The Phoenix Valley of the Sun AZ , Las Vegas NV , and dessicated California are covetous of any and all unused water. One of the most unfortunate legal documents of the 20th century was the Colorado River Compact which over-appropriated the entire length of the vast Colorado river system during some abnormally wet years, only to see that river fall well below the amount of water demanded from it in more normal years, and now the dry years. We’ve all seen the pictures of the bathtub rings in Lake Powell and Lake Mead etc.

    Few Wyoming folks realize that a little growing city called Los Angeles came all the way upstream and bought a lot of water rights around Pinedale WY before 1920, and the sparse population of cattlemen gladly sold them that water with a straight face, knowing they would keep using it anyway. A century later we find ourselves in the position that Los Angeles has the senior water right call on the upper Upper Green River in Wyoming. Wyoming’s constitutional claim that the state owns and manages all the water within Wyoming’s boundaries leaks like a sieve.

    It is not unreasonable to think a nasty interstate Water War will break out in the American West. Just because Riparian Law goes back to the Roman Empire doesn’t mean we have learned to settle our differences on who gets that most precious of commodities, free flowing surface waters.

  3. At some point in the past year I recall reading an article which stated energy companies were quietly acquiring ( or trying to acquire) water rights in southwest Wyoming . Many tens of thousands of acre-feet. This was in the context of the vast Green River Oil Shale deposits situated where Wyoming , Utah, and Colorado conjoin. Which gives one pause when also considering the monstrous Alberta Canada oil shale development near Fort MacMurray that plunders so much of that region’s surface water, among other issues.

    The greatest demand for Wyoming’s unused 250,000 acre-feet in the Upper Green will be from the Desert Southwest. The Phoenix Valley of the Sun AZ , Las Vegas NV , and dessicated California are covetous of any and all unused water. One of the most unfortunate legal documents of the 20th century was the Colorado River Compact which over-appropriated the entire length of the vast Colorado river system during some abnormally wet years, only to see that river fall well below the amount of water demanded from it in more normal years, and now the dry years. We’ve all seen the pictures of the bathtub rings in Lake Powell and Lake Mead etc.

    Few Wyoming folks realize that a little growing city called Los Angeles came all the way upstream and bought a lot of water rights around Pinedale WY before 1920, and the sparse population of cattlemen gladly sold them that water with a straight face, knowing they would keep using it anyway. A century later we find ourselves in the position that Los Angeles has the senior water right call on the upper Upper Green River in Wyoming. Wyoming’s constitutional claim that the state owns and manages all the water within Wyoming’s boundaries leaks like a sieve.

    It is not unreasonable to think a nasty interstate Water War will break out in the American West. Just because Riparian Law goes back to the Roman Empire doesn’t mean we have learned to settle our differences on who gets that most precious of commodities, free flowing surface waters.