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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.