Members of the public packed the Sublette County Public Library in Pinedale Sept. 27, 2022 for a water meeting organized by the Wyoming State Engineer's Office. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE—Members of a working group created by Gov. Mark Gordon to “disseminate information” and “act as a sounding board for the public and stakeholders” regarding Colorado River Compact issues reported Monday mounting public frustration about access to information. 

The Colorado River Working Group, formed in 2021, essentially acts as a consulting body and communications conduit between water users in the Green River and Little Snake River basins and the State Engineer’s Office. 

At a meeting of the group on Monday members said constituents are confused. Members also reported fielding complaints from stakeholders who can’t get the information they need to stay abreast of the fast-moving and complex topic that stands to impact water users in the state.

At the same meeting, State Engineer Brandon Gebhart insisted the body isn’t subject to the state’s open meetings laws and said he’s hesitant to take questions from the public during working group meetings. Though Monday’s meeting was open to the public — as were six previous meetings — none have been live-streamed or otherwise made available to anyone not in attendance, according to the engineer’s office.

That’s by design, according to Gebhart. 

“I’m a little concerned that if we start one of these [live-streamed presentations] that we wouldn’t get through any of the topics before the questions start coming in,” Gebhart told working group members. In a follow-up with WyoFile Tuesday, Gebhart added, “My general concern about doing public webinars is being unable to get through the numerous and complex topics we need to cover if we get slowed down by multiple public questions.”

Chris Brown of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office discusses the implications of the Colorado River Compact with water users in Pinedale Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The working group’s meetings are intended to hash out information and discuss how to disseminate it with water users, Gebhart said. The group’s outreach is primarily done directly between the group’s members and their constituents.

Though there was no formal call for public comments or questions at the Monday meeting, members of the working group, SEO and the attorney general’s office did field some questions from members of the public in attendance.

Under pressure

The main topic of discussion Monday was how the SEO is scrambling to entice eligible water users to take part in a conservation program that pays them to voluntarily leave water in streams that flow to the Colorado River. 

Explaining the program and eligibility requirements to myriad water users is complicated, particularly as many in the ag community are leery of government-sponsored programs aimed at reducing water use, according to the SEO. A tight timeframe makes the effort more challenging. The Upper Colorado River Commission announced a call for System Conservation Pilot Program proposals Dec. 14 with a filing deadline of Feb. 1.

The SEO, which is overseeing the program in Wyoming, is eager to enroll as many participants as possible, according to the agency. The state and its upper basin partners need to demonstrate progress in cultivating various voluntary water conservation efforts to build a case against the potential for mandated cuts under the Colorado River Compact or federal intervention. The agency is relying on members of the working group to help field questions and explain the potential benefits of the program. But so far, confusion reigns, members indicated.

Rep. Albert Sommers irrigates his ranch near Pinedale from where he trails cattle to Union Pass, seen on the horizon (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

“Conservation districts — they really don’t know enough about what’s going on and they can’t ask enough questions,” Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale), a member of the working group, told fellow members. “There just needs to be more formal outreach in the country.”

Industrial water users in southwest Wyoming — trona mines, natural gas processors and electrical power utilities — “are yearning for information,” working group member Aaron Reichel of Genesis-Alkali said.

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), also a member of the working group, said “there’s a lot of concerns with this System Conservation Pilot Project.” Concerns include “the timeframe to get [information], who to contact, who’s going to answer these questions to put together an application, what’s eligible — all those questions. I’m just getting inundated with this stuff because of the timeframe of this.”

Working group structure

Gordon, anticipating the need to protect the interests of Wyoming water users from the impacts of the Colorado River crisis, formed the Colorado River Working Group in 2021 and appointed eight members. The group includes two representatives for municipal water users, one for agriculture, one for environmental interests, two for industrial water users and two legislators — Sen. Hicks and Rep. Sommers.

Gordon “tasked members with helping to more broadly disseminate information about key Colorado/Green/Little Snake River Basin issues to interested stakeholders, and for members to provide insights as Wyoming navigates important river issues,” Gebhart told WyoFile via email, adding that the SEO relies on the working group to enhance its own public outreach efforts.

In forming the group, Gordon agreed to the SEO’s suggestion that it not be subject to the state’s open meeting laws, according to Gebhart, though the group has decided to mostly adhere to open meetings standards so far. 

Gordon’s office didn’t directly answer what justifies the working group’s exemption from the state’s open meetings laws. As a gubernatorial appointed group convened by a state agency to address issues with a critical public resource the body would appear at a glance to be obligated to operate transparently — but such quasi-governmental groups can and do exist, according to Bruce Moats, a Wyoming attorney who specializes in First Amendment and Wyoming media law.

“The group appears to exist in a kind of a gray area,” Moats said. “The question is, why is it necessary to have the option to close meetings [to the public] when you have exemptions under the public meetings law that allow for that. Just why?” 

At the urging of group members Monday, Gebhart agreed to consider hosting a webinar that provides members of the public the chance to ask questions about Colorado River issues and the SEO’s efforts to enroll water users in the SCPP.

“We are not trying to limit information getting to the public,” Gebhart told WyoFile. “Ultimately, our goal is to get more, and accurate, information to those potentially affected by the current situation.”

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. It’s important to note that the Colorado River Working Group meetings are open to the public. I have attended all but the first of these meetings and have benefitted greatly from the information shared at the meetings and by Mel Fegler in between meetings to those who are on the mailing list. The in-person meetings provide the opportunity for the public and stakeholder groups to interact and build dialogue across the divides so commonly built up from remote access and subsequent special interest specific communication. I am grateful for the opportunity to attend these meetings and the diversity of geographic locations where they are held. I hope they continue to be in-person, place-based, community-specific, and in the Green River Watershed of the larger Colorado River Basin.

  2. Wyoming gets about 14% allocated and historically doesn’t use it all. Is it a “use it or lose it” allocation becase down stream interests will us it.. we will lose it. The Upper Green has enjoyed normal or above normal snow but Fontenelle and
    Flaming Gorge are very low despite snow pack.
    The Snake in Teton County, despite normal run-off, was drawn down to historical lows due to demand down river. Jackson lake is down to the natural lake and Palisades Resivoir to a river bed.
    There are a great many businesses that depend on this water besides farmers. The tourist industry in Jackson needs water. The tourist industries in park , Carbon and Sweetwater counties need a river flow to exist. Cheyenne and Rawlins have junior water rights and will go dry if our interests aren’t protected.
    What I have observed are wealthy interests buying land for the water rights. What do they know that we don’t?

    The public will never know if meetings aren’t streamed.

    1. “The Snake in Teton County, despite normal run-off, was drawn down to historical lows due to demand down river.”

      If I remember correctly, Jackson Lake was already low before Idaho farmers turned on the taps. And a hot dry July didn’t help. Wyoming has no real control over the Snake River, nor does the national park so none has any real power to protect it for tourists. Additionally, the Snake River flows to the Pacific so it has no bearing on the Colorado River Compact and this group. Others might not know that.

      “There are a great many businesses that depend on this water besides farmers. The tourist industry in Jackson needs water.”

      Tourists had plenty of water even for boating, just not every marina. Even if we could, the last thing we should do is regulate Teton County’s water supplies to please tourists. Besides, we have too many tourists. The less, the better.

      As you pointed out, the lake is mostly man made. Man made for Idaho farmers. It should be regulated to protect the riparian ecosystem of the Snake River to the greatest extent possible. Welfare farmers in Idaho didn’t earn the water rights so much as claim them but they do have a legal claim under our water laws.

      As for State Engineer Brandon Gebhart, he needs to get a clue.

      Brandon Gebhart, P.E., State Engineer. Contact Administration: 307-777-6150

      And please do livestream. Even if only 10 people will watch it shows a willingness to be transparent. No need to take questions over the live stream if you fear the mob.

  3. Near as I remember, these meetings have always been open. Mel Fegler of the SEO will provide an invite to anyone who asks. Get on the SEO’s email update list (on their website). As to whether there should be a streaming version of these meetings, I suspect that is coming. The ones I attended had both the Working Group, and interested members of the public, in attendance. Remember too that the Colorado River situation is evolving rapidly, and not every question asked can be answered immediately. That doesn’t mean the SEO isn’t seeking answers.

    Things are tough in the Colorado River Basin right now – thank goodness for a decent snowpack so far this winter. Setting up a system conservation program – which remember is voluntary – took a couple years when it was first started in 2015. Trying to set one up again – with just a few months notice – is incredibly hard. No doubt there are questions that can’t yet be answered.

    But Wyoming needs to stay the course. We all want our users in the basin to see minimal effects while still recognizing we are part of a larger river system that is seeing horrible drought. We can do it, with voluntary participants, in the near term. Let’s hope such efforts obviate mandatory curtailment, a much more troublesome outcome, in the longer term.

  4. I would urge these meetings be open to the public. Don’t hide behind closed doors. You will only add confusion to what should be an open process. Find a way to make it happen.

  5. “…act as a sounding board for the public and stakeholders…” ~ Gov. Mark Gordon

    “…if we get slowed down by multiple public questions.” ~ State Engineer Brandon Gebhart

    Only the government can create a sounding board for the public while simultaneously ignoring the public.

  6. If Wyoming does not get ahead of the myriad water issues for obtaining Wyoming water we’re going to have many unforeseen problems from out of state interests. This is not an isolated issue. There are multiple water issues now. Consider the proposals for a new dam to be built near Encampment . Should the state pay $80 million without getting any water in return? Nope. Should Wyoming allow lower basin states to dictate what we do with our water? Nope. Should the Colorado River Compact of 1922 be renegotiated? Yep. California, Oregon and other states are flooding, have always flooded and will continue to flood. Have they developed diversions to reservoirs to harvest these flood waters? Nope. They just want more upper basin water. Flood water to reservoirs to treatment plants. Easy peasy. Thanks.

  7. ” gordon, anticipating the need to protect the interest of wyoming water users from the impacts of the colorado river crisis, ”
    hopefully he will be able to fight off the anticipated coming by the federal government to confiscate wyoming’s water to the down stream dilettante’s