As officials this week outline plans for a 264-foot-high concrete dam proposed for a wooded canyon in the Medicine Bow National Forest, irrigators and critics remain divided over the project’s benefits and impacts. The two sides disagree whether the estimated $80-million structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir are pork or progress, boon or bane.

Federal officials begin receiving public comments on the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County as ranchers and environmentalists disagree over whether 450,000 cubic yards of concrete should plug a forested gorge and whether federal and state agencies are conducting environmental examinations appropriately. In what one official admitted is a complex process with parallel reviews, two federal agencies will make key findings to resolve the project’s fate.

The federal Natural Resource Conservation Service will examine dam construction and alternatives in an environmental impact statement. Meantime, the U.S. Forest Service will launch a separate “feasibility study” to decide whether it should take part in an estimated 6,282-acre land exchange facilitating construction of the dam. The study will determine whether trading the federal dam site to Wyomining “is in the best interest of the American public,” Medicine Bow spokesman Aaron Voos said.

Proponents want the dam and reservoir to yield 6,500 acre-feet of late-season irrigation for between 67-100 irrigators in Wyoming and Colorado. The 10,000 acre-foot impoundment would hold 1,500 acre-feet as a minimum bypass flow for fish and wildlife. The state would pay for most of the estimated $80 million cost, a figure calculated in 2017.

“This is may be as conservation-minded a place I know of in the western United States.”

Rancher Pat O’Toole

“We would like to have a project here because it’s good for our valley,” said Pat O’Toole, a former state representative who ranches along the Little Snake River. “The public interest is clearly that the storage project [aids] biodiversity” and boosts food production while creating “a really healthy landscape.”

That’s not the view of Gary Wockner, director of Save the Colorado, a group that fights dams and promotes ecocentrism, a philosophy that shuns human dominance over the environment.

“The project is designed to further drain the Little Snake River,” a tributary to the Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers, he said. “Dams kill rivers. The goal [of the dam builders] is to consume water and grow crops — it’s not to save the fish and wildlife and wetlands.”

The land exchange is an end-run around environmental reviews, he said, an assertion dam supporters and review agencies reject. Wockner is worried that Medicine Bow officials won’t apply the same scrutiny to the land exchange that they would to the construction of a dam on National Forest property, he said. Building on federal land would require a more extensive review, he said, echoing dam backers’ own public statements.

“They think if they can get it on private ground or state ground they can evade the law,” Wockner said of federal and state officials. “It’s collusion at best.”

Medicine Bow spokesman Voos rejected the assertion his agency is shirking its responsibilities. It is speculation to assert what level of review a proposal to build the dam on federal property would require, he said.

Wyoming agrees the process is sound. “It wouldn’t limit the environmental review at all,” Jason Crowder, deputy director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, told WyoFile.

In addition to its public-interest swap determination, the Medicine Bow is participating in a separate environmental impact review and statement — conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service — that will consider environmental and social impacts of dam and reservoir construction and operation. All that “satisfies the environmental review requirements for the land exchange,” Voos said.

Dwindling basin flows

At the upper reaches of the Colorado River Basin, where dwindling flows put seven Western states and Mexico at odds over historic and future use, the project comes at an uneasy time. It will test Wyoming’s willingness to impound and use what it believes river laws allow, despite an arid landscape of dwindling Colorado River flows, oversubscribed demands, climate change and growth.

Federal regulations state that a land exchange can take place only if the public interest “will be well served.”

One benefit to the Medicine Bow could be acquiring 640 acres of state-owned school-trust sections inside the national forest. “Quite a few of them are either in or adjacent to [a] wilderness area or roadless areas,” said Jonathan Bowler, watermaster for the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District.

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

“The public could potentially see an expansion of roadless and wilderness in those areas,” he said.

The reservoir itself would flood land within about a half mile of the boundary of the Medicine Bow’s 31,057-acre Huston Park Wilderness Area, according to maps.

Bowler outlined other ways existing irrigation aids the environment; the dam would expand those benefits.

“You’ve got hundreds of ranchers pretty much doing the work of beavers to build riparian areas and habitat,” he said. Such irrigation-induced wetlands today cover more than 7,000 acres in the area, he said.

Irrigation aids amphibians and species like sandhill cranes that migrate to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, he said. “Our irrigation actually directly benefits that mating grounds down there that’s quite a tourist attraction.” Elk and other wildlife benefit from the open private land, he said.

Irrigation “basically fills up the soil … the largest reservoir that we have,” he said. When that moisture starts coming back out to the river, “that means that our rivers are higher [in] flow [in] late summer, early fall than historically they were.”

Wyoming calculates those returning flows — about 45% of what’s diverted onto fields — as water that can be used for irrigation again and counted as a benefit, according to a Water Development Office study.

“That late-season irrigation especially can help cool down river temperatures, which helps to provide for those big game populations as well as fish and other wildlife,” Bowler said.

The dam also could benefit Colorado River cutthroat trout because it would be an upstream barrier to competitors, helping fisheries managers enlarge a sanctuary for the species in and above the reservoir.

Said O’Toole, “this is may be as conservation-minded a place I know of in the western United States.”

Environmental review

Touting dams’ environmental benefits “is like saying smoking is good for your health,” Wockner said. “We will weigh in very heavily advising the Forest Service to absolutely not do this.”

He drew a distinction between natural wetlands and irrigation-created ones. The former are protected by federal law while irrigation-created ones exist, he said, at the whim of ranchers.

“Taking water out of the river will destroy some percent of those river-associated wetlands or habitat,” he said. “They want the water for irrigation. It consumes water.”

Wyoming wants 1,700 acres of Forest Service land for the dam and would analyze the value of between 2,024 and 4,400 acres of Wyoming school-trust land inside the Medicine Bow for the trade. Public announcements differ over the state acreage to be considered for trade.

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

State and federal officials agree a land swap would make approval of the 130-acre reservoir easier. Wyoming’s exchange request states that a land swap “would eliminate the need for a USFS special use permit.”

Federal land ownership of the dam site “adds millions of dollars to that [permitting] process,” Harry LaBonde, former director of the WWDO told lawmakers in 2018. “Dealing with the Forest Service … very much complicates the NEPA process,” he said, and an exchange “very much streamlines” potential development.

Dam proponents “were running into a bit of a roadblock with Forest Service on Forest-Service-managed land,” OSLI Deputy Director Crowder told the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners in 2021.

The Medicine Bow told Wyoming officials that building on federal, not state, land “would not be the best approach just due to all the regulations that would come along with a [required] special use permit,” Voos said in an interview. “And so I think that [land swap] has been our suggestion.”

The value of exchanged parcels can be balanced by adjusting the acreage or paying for a difference, according to Wyoming’s proposal.

Any increase in federal acreage — the state offered 4,400 acres for analysis and potential trade for 1,700 acres of Medicine Bow land — could run afoul of Carbon County’s Natural Resource Management Plan. That plan supports valuable exchanges but also calls for “no net loss of private or state lands in exchange for federal lands.”

Gov. Mark Gordon, too, “is not supportive of the federal government expanding their [sic] estate in Wyoming,” Gordon’s spokesman Michael Pearlman told WyoFile when the governor protested the 35,670-acre conservation purchase of the private Marton Ranch along the North Platte River last year.

Of the 1,700 acres of Medicine Bow property Wyoming would acquire, the state wants 1,336 acres for the dam and reservoir itself and another 426 acres covering parts of Haggarty Creek and the Belvidere Ditch, site of a water spat among area irrigators.

Owning all the property would “provide for the efficient operation of the reservoir and surrounding lands,” the state said in its land-swap proposal.

The state would lease the newly acquired land to the Water Development Commission, which would eventually transfer ownership to Carbon County or some other entity, according to plans. That final owner would be responsible for compensating the school trust — whose land the state would trade away.

A mining company that owns land at the reservoir site also would be involved with the project. American Milling LP of Cahokia, Illinois owns about 124 acres inside the national forest at the proposed site of the reservoir. The Carbon County assessor lists the market value of the property, site of mineral claims, at $40,675. Wyoming would presumably have to acquire that property too, or somehow arrange for it to be flooded.

WyoFile did not receive a response to a certified letter sent to the company seeking comment on Wyoming’s plans to inundate the private land.

Equal values

The Forest Service must show that values and public objectives of the state parcels “equal or exceed” those that would be swapped, regulations state. Medicine Bow land that would become the dam site must “not substantially conflict with established management objectives on adjacent Federal lands,” the Forest Service said.

Medicine Bow officials last week couldn’t immediately outline those objectives.

A WWDO study, however, listed the benefits of a new dam, saying it would generate $73.7 million in public benefits. Reservoir releases would be coordinated with those from the High Savery Dam.

A fish barrier on Haggarty Creek provides an upstream sanctuary for Colorado River cutthroat trout. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Critics have questioned the accounting of benefits, including rosy projections for recreational revenue and the acreage that would benefit from irrigation.

The cost/benefit ratio allows the state to reduce the required contributions from irrigation districts from the typical 33% to 8% of construction costs.

Wyoming, however, has seen costs for dam construction increase dramatically in recent years, potentially upsetting the cost/benefit ratio. The environmental review will update those figures, Jason Mead, interim director of the WWDO, wrote in an email.

Construction would require an estimated 450,000 cubic yards of concrete, according to an application to appropriate water filed with the state engineer in 2014. The Forest Service public-interest determination and separate NRCS environmental impact statement seek to examine the construction plan through two separate reviews.

A 70-step process 

The parallel review process is complex, Voos said. The Medicine Bow is engaged with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a larger analysis of the dam’s environmental and social impact. Other state and federal agencies also are involved.

The separate Forest Service public-interest decision is entwined in that process, both to be explained at public meetings in the region on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The public-interest determination, “that’s kind of a parallel process to the land exchange,” Voos said. “We are piggybacking in essence, on those public meetings,” to get comments on the swap.

“We have a full, almost … 70-step process that we have to go through for the land exchange,” Voos said. Reservoir construction on National Forest System lands “is not commonplace,” the Medicine Bow said in a statement.

After determining the public-interest benefit, “we proceed or don’t proceed with the rest of the land exchange process,” Voos said. The Forest Service is “not for or against the project.”

Critic Wockner said the process is vague. “It’s completely unclear what these dual processes are,” he said.

Interested parties can read a legal notice published by the NRCS or weigh in online, by post or hand-delivery. The comments go to the NRCS, which will forward relevant land-swap ones to the Forest Service, Voos said. Meetings outlining the scope of the analysis and potential alternatives will be held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Craig, Colorado, and Baggs and Saratoga respectively.

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. Elephant Butts can dogs across the Rio Grande in NM and provides water for irrigation to NM, TX and Mexico. The EB Irrigation district irrigates 178,000 acres. This past year each farmer got 4 acre INCHES of water for the season.
    Because of climate change the Rio Grande is bone dry from the EB dam South from Nov to May. Plus TX has sued NM for not releasing more water for TX and is now claiming that private wells in NM are depriving TX of water from the bolson below the river bed. Be careful what you wish for.

  2. Wyoming legislature has already provided several million dollars to study, engineer, explore this project over a dozen years. In addition, Wyoming would be trading away state lands. The cost of $80 million is based on a 2017 estimate which I’m sure by construction will be nearly double. What wasn’t addressed in this article is over 25% of the water released from this reservoir will go to Colorado irrigators. Yes, the Pothook irrigation district is ‘supportive’ of this project, why wouldn’t they be? They have no equal financial obligations. It is widely known there are many investors seeking to buy ranches with these type of water rights to be able to get water to the growing Colorado population centers. This plan is a boondoggle benefiting a few at a high cost to Wyoming people.

  3. $8,000,000 cost divided by 80 ranchers = $1M per rancher. I have no problem with this dam….if the 80 ranchers chip in $1M a piece out of their own pockets (no cost share/no grants etc) to totally fund this project

  4. Where would the 450,000 cubic yards of concrete for the dam come from? New or existing quarries?

    1. Tom: a very important point. 450,000 yards of concrete aggregate is a lot of stone and will leave a huge scar on the land somewhere. Crushed granite or limestone would be preferred rock but it might have to be hauled many miles thus inflating the cost of the proposed dam. The contractor who is the successful bidder will have the right to locate concrete aggregate from any source he chooses but will try to find rock from private land thus avoiding Federal permitting requirements. The privately owned mining claims are the obvious source for rock but they’re probably in a mineralized zone and may not be suitable for concrete aggregate. Rock from some distance would require upgrading the road up Haggerty Creek for extra width and rocked in order to handle many heavy loads. The proposed dam would have major impacts off-site due to quarrying – in addition, large sediment catching small dams would be required during construction in order to keep runoff carrying sediments out of the trout stream – not an easy thing to do.

  5. Since when has man created anything more beautiful and functional than nature? We humans screw it up everytime. And irrigation for ranchers? Once again, the most subsidized group has their hand outstretched for handouts.

  6. Same old, same old—-trying to say building a dam on a river is ecologically better for the environment is a total lie…..other places like Washington state are removing dams that have wrecked havoc on the environment–this is a scheme to only enrich local farmers and ranchers and nothing else. We visit your state every year as tourists and this will certainly make us seriously think about visiting someplace else where the state really protects its environment–we say to this dam—it’s not a good thing for the generl public–only a few local s…

  7. WARNING – COPPER IS EXTREMELY TOXIC TO FISH

    WARNING – COPPER IS EXTREMELY TOXIC TO FISH !!!!
    The existence of copper and gold mines above Haggerty Creek may be a huge problem for water quality. Dam construction activities including excavation for the base of the dam and quarrying for rock could disturb mineralized zones that might oxidize into secondary and tertiary water soluble copper minerals. In addition the presence of pyrite and/or arsenopyrite in mineralized zones could lead to oxidization and subsequent creation of ” acid rain ” compounds. The presence of private mining claims in the vicinty of the proposed dam is an indicator to me that mineralization is probably present. Existing water quality data should be closely examined and laboratory tests on host bedrock from the dam site should be conducted as soon as possible. Bottom line is that a highly mineralized area is not a good site of a dam and stream which supports a Colorado cut throat trout population. I’ve seen the runoff from old mines in Colorado with a pH of 3.8!!!

  8. Instead of a risky, expensive, complicated water project such as this, the ranchers’ “beaver” strategy enhanced may make more sense and perhaps should be put on the table as an option. Many “beaver dams” may be more efficient, less costly and equitable for environmental and ranching values. Ranchers have been worthy custodians of the environment in the past, and hopefully into the future. Ranchers should take another look at what they have been doing and coordinate or pool their resources for how to direct and manage water. Meanwhile I will admit this is an armchair comment having little or no expertise in the field. It is merely a thought to be considered if it hasn’t been already.

  9. You have got to be kidding me.
    Building a new reservoir on a Colorado River Compact Water way to provide a handful of ranchers water to grow hay. This project doesn’t pass a minimal straight face test, let alone a NEPA analysis.

  10. What is the benefit to the Common School Land Trust if these trust lands are swapped for this dam’s creation? The benefits enumerated in the economic study all flow to beneficiaries other than the School Land Trust. It’s difficult to image how the SLIB can negotiate with itself for this land swap and determine appropriate value for the cessation of the ownership of lands that were granted upon statehood with a specific responsibility of supporting public education.

    The approval of any swap of Common School Trust Lands without appropriate compensation should be deemed an abuse by the SLIB Board of its fiduciary responsibilities and an abrogation by the National Forest Service of its responsibility in facilitating a transaction easily viewed as one in opposition to the federal requirements of statehood.

    For too long the elected leaders have abused their fiduciary responsibility to the Common School Land Fund by not maximizing return of those assets entrusted to the state.

  11. This project would require enormous public investment for a small private profit. A project in which only 67-100 irrigators would benefit from a project costing $80 million dollars is extremely wasteful, especially when alfalfa is produced abundantly in other states with wetter climates. As the Colorado River Basin continues to become increasingly arid, diverting more water from imperiled ecosystems will only worsen our biodiversity crisis, for no apparent gain.

  12. I’m no expert, but the argument that damming the river will somehow create wetlands or improve river flows just sounds absurd. Irrigation doesn’t create wetlands, that water mostly evaporates or goes into the hay that then evaporates that water. Saying something doesn’t make it true, even if you really really want it to be true.

  13. Excellent reporting about a complex and contentious issue.
    The $80 million dollar price tag, given the historic cost overruns on these types of projects, is questionable. Add to that the figure was from a 2017 cost estimate, so that number is “inoperative”. Given the initial lowball number and adding today’s construction costs, which have far outpaced inflation, a prudent number for this project would conservatively be well over $100 million, probably approaching $115 million or more.
    It will be interesting how the numbers may be “juiced” in a new cost/benefit analysis to justify just an 8% contribution instead of a 33% contribution from irrigation districts. Stay tuned.
    As always, follow the money……

  14. The public benefits the proponents claim are so nebulose I can’t say I can’t define any of them after reading proponent statements. One thing that appears apparent is a net loss of acres available for public recreation. That part is obvious. Right now, all those state acres area available for public access. So making private, land that now is public is a net loss. No added access for anglers in the river corridor either. So what does the public get for 80 million dollars?

  15. I understand that ranchers can benefit from more water. Don’t we all? Ranchers seem to be making a living in the way they chose. Is change needed? What is the impact on the natural environment and all of us downstream that need water? Dams do not improve the natural qualities that native fish and wildlife depend upon. Some of us depend on natural areas for our quality of life and we need plenty of clean water. Reservoirs are not always full and muddy shorelines are not pretty nor useful to any native creatures. Controlling the flow of any stream has a great impact on wildlife both above and below a dam. Dams are being taken down across the country. Do we really need another dam? Who would benefit and not?

  16. water is going to be no longer thought of as a commodity.
    the 1922 compact was signed 100 years ago before the expansion &
    population increases down stream.

    water is now a necessity since the water is in wyoming,the democrats down stream
    are not going to let any project up stream interfere with their consumption.

  17. COLORADO CUT THROAT HABITAT IS OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE: Thanks for providing a picture of the fish barrier Angus. Keeping our cut throat trout species off of the T&E list is extremely important to Wyoming – this was an important issue during the Freudenthal administration when the Governor directed Game and Fish to put Yellowstone cut throats on the front burner and thereby prevented a listing. With respect to the proposed dam I feel the value of secure habitat is very, very valuable and should be a major determining factor with respect to whether or not the dam project goes forward. However, Wyoming Game and Fishe’s opinion on whether the dam project would have a positive or negative impact on Colorado cut throats really matters – Trout Unlimited’s opinion should carry a lot of weight too.

    I assume Wyoming Game and Fish has a fish hatchery which has been raising Colorado cut throat fingerlings, and if the dam is built, they can stock fingerlings below the dam, in the dam waters and in Haggerty creek upstream of the dam. I bring this up since the dam should be expected to stop upstream migration of fish. I would value the Colorado cut throat trout habitat on Haggerty Creek in the tens of millions of dollars – possibly over $50,000,000 if a value could even be assigned. The point is, irrigation isn’t the only beneficial use of Haggerty Creek – Colorado cut throats could make or break this project and Wyoming already has a huge investment in our cut throat trout which must be protected. Lets hear from you anglers – what do you think???

  18. Awesome article Angus and great photos. This is the exact information the public will need for this weeks public work sessions. This is high value land which the proposed land swap is hoping to acquire so the State of Wyoming must be willing to offer school sections which are likewise of high value. Interesting to note that the Marton Ranch acquisition ” blocked up ” BLM lands into contiguous acreage of considerable size; and now, the State of Wyoming is attempting to block up land for the dam project. In a state with highly fragmented land ownership patterns this is oftentimes the way to go.