Battle Creek flowing near the town of Savery. A proposed $80 million, 280-foot-high dam on the West Fork, a tributary, awaits funding approval by the Wyoming Legislature. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Uncertain how to fully fund an $80 million dam in southwest Wyoming, lawmakers Friday agreed the state should spend no money on construction before finalizing a financial package.

Among issues debated by the Legislature’s Select Water Committee are how and whether Colorado — which could accrue 25 percent of the project’s benefit — might participate in building the 280-foot-high dam and 10,000 acre-foot reservoir. Friday’s debate regarding a $82 million water-construction bill and an $11 million water-planning measure also saw legislators haggle over whether other lawmakers might raid a water account for different purposes.

Wyoming water developers seek $40 million in 2018 to continue planning and begin construction of a dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County. The proposed dam and reservoir would serve between 67 and 100 irrigators in the Little Snake River drainage. Irrigators would pay less than 10 percent of the cost, according to the funding request.

Although a quarter of the lands that would benefit from the dam are in another state, Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said he has had only conversations with counterparts in Colorado. He estimated that state’s obligation at $20 million or a fifth of the cost. Wyoming and Colorado so far have forged no cost-sharing agreement.

Lawmakers agreed to include the $40 million request in the funding bill to be considered by the entire Legislature on one condition: there can be no construction spending or commitments until funding for the entire project is identified. That would still allow money to be spent on land acquisition.  

A state account for reservoir development has enough to cover the $40 million being requested, but not the balance.

“We do not currently have enough money in Account III to fully fund this project,” LaBonde told lawmakers. He would not speculate to WyoFile about where the balance would come from.

Constructing the reservoir would require securing 100 acres of federal property from the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. The dam also would inundate some of the 186 acres in the area owned by the American Milling company of East St. Louis. Carbon County property records list the market value of the mining inholding at $67,427.

Appropriating $40 million would launch permitting and land-acquisition, dam supporters say. Forest Service property could be acquired through purchase, exchange or congressional land transfer.

The dam would serve irrigated lands in Wyoming and Colorado, some of which also benefit from the High Savery Dam. There’s no firm commitment from Colorado irrigators to help finance the project, leading one critic to wonder how Wyoming can dedicate $40 million toward the $80 million development. (Wyoming Water Development Office)

The Legislature should appropriate the $40 million to convince Colorado to share costs, LaBonde said. “We definitely want to show that Wyoming is sincere about moving this project forward,” he told the committee.

But lawmakers appeared nervous regarding the lack of commitment from the southern neighbor, especially given Wyoming’s fiscal crisis, stemming from a downturn in energy revenues.

“We all know the times we’re in and I do think it’s premature to tie 40 million bucks up,” Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devil’s Tower) said. He proposed to cut the commitment to only $3.7 million until Colorado chips in.

Driskill’s cut “kills the project,” argued Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), who lives in the Little Snake River drainage. “This pretty much … says we’re really not serious about this project,” he said, that “we’re not going to pursue land acquisition.”

Without a $40 million earmark “there’s a big risk” the water development funds could be raided for use elsewhere in government, Hicks said. The appropriations committee did that last year to the tune of millions of dollars, he said.

Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) agreed. “We do need to obligate that money, otherwise it’s dry powder for [Joint Appropriations Committee,]” he said. “They can reach in there anytime, if it’s not obligated, and take it out.”

Driskill, a member of the appropriations committee, pledged to support the $80-million project and stave off lawmakers if they try to loot the funds. “We’ll do our dangest,” Driskill said. But, “if that committee doesn’t like a project [that money is] allocated to, I can assure you [the money is] gone.”

Driskill’s amendment to cut the appropriation to $3.7 million failed on a voice vote that saw him and possibly one other committee member in support. Meier then sought to placate worries about future funding with a new condition.

He proposed a successful amendment that would prohibit committing to construction contracts before full funding is identified. Consequently, the $40 million item remains in the omnibus water construction bill that the Legislature will consider beginning Feb. 12.

Irrigators pleased with Gov. Mead’s dam building

Ranchers are giddy about the potential for additional irrigation water in the Little Snake River drainage, said Pat O’Toole, a former legislator whose family owns a ranch in the area. He praised Gov. Matt’ Mead’s 10-in-10 program that seeks to build 10 water storage projects in a decade.

There’s “incredible excitement Gov. Mead has put throughout the whole West about his program building reservoirs,” O’Toole told the committee. O’Toole is president of the Family Farm Alliance that represents irrigators in the 17 most western states.

“Think long-term on this,” he said. “Take the vision of those guys in the ’70s and ’80s that created the water development fund and go forward with this project.”

While some lawmakers complained that Wyoming has subsidized its southern neighbor’s water in the past, O’Toole said Wyoming owes Colorado water because of a diversion from the Little Snake River drainage that sent water to Cheyenne. “We can’t be antagonistic to Colorado,” he said. “We live together in our community and we’re really trying to work together.”

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)

Driskill put Wyoming first. “Our job at this table is not to right what happened on the last project, it’s to make sure Wyoming is fully protected,” he said. The entire project shouldn’t even be at the construction-funding stage, he said, but rather at the planning level. “One of Colorado’s people oughta be sitting at the table where you’re at, Mr. O’Toole, and talking to us and saying this is important to Colorado,” Driskill said.

Even if Wyoming doesn’t build the dam, procuring the land would benefit the state, Hicks said. Colorado and Wyoming’s congressional delegations should seek federal infrastructure money for the project, he said. Further, Hicks told Wyofile in an interview, the entire project was launched with a new paradigm in mind. It would not be a win-lose proposition pitting irrigators against conservationists. Instead, the project would result in a net conservation gain and serve as a model.

Estimated public benefits allow grant to irrigators

Such conservation gains boost the estimated public benefits of the project. Those benefits — from flatwater recreation and camping, to improved downstream river fisheries, increased economic activity and other items — amount to $73.7 million, a study says. That qualifies the project for about $73 million in Wyoming grant money and a less than 10 percent commitment from irrigators. Water projects typically require a 33 percent cost share from irrigators or, in cases of “severe financial hardship,” only 25 percent.

In an interview Hicks touted restoration of waterways from copper mining pollution as some of the benefits. Imperiled Colorado River cutthroat also would benefit from construction of the reservoir, he said. The new dam and reservoir also would allow releases from High Savery Reservoir to be altered to benefit trout, he said.

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One former water development commissioner and legislator, Jeb Steward, has called the project “pork” and said it should not be funded. He contends the dam would resolve what’s only a 2 to 3 percent irrigation shortage, amounting to about a week’s worth of water a year. The 100-acre reservoir in the Sierra Madre Mountains south of Rawlins would supply water to only 2,000 acres in Wyoming that don’t currently benefit from the nearby High Savery Dam, he said.

The new Battle Creek dam would store more than could be used by irrigators today, a report said. New pastures would have to be created to take full advantage of the reservoir.



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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 or (307)...

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  1. I have never seen a dam proposal yet that proponents didn’t claim benefits for wildlife,fish, and recreation. Which of course is promotional B.S. Proponents of these projects (the beneficiaries) would be less “giddy” about Mead’s program of Ten Water Projects in Ten Years if they, instead of the general public, had to pay for them.

  2. I could argue mightily against what Larry Hicks said about conservation “Imperiled Colorado River cutthroat also would benefit from construction of the reservoir, he said. The new dam and reservoir also would allow releases from High Savery Reservoir to be altered to benefit trout, he said.”

    The same argument was made about the High Savery Reservoir. The worse thing you can do for the “Imperiled Colorado River cutthroat” is build a dam. The ones planted in the High Savery Reservoir aren’t doing well because: they don’t compete with the other planted fish species, you are releasing non-native cutthroat from the dam, and frankly, cutthroat don’t breed in lakes. It’s disingenuous to suggest that High Savery could release more trout saving water when it’s 16? miles to the next irrigator from the Savery dam which is filled by the North Savery and Dirtyman creeks. And how many miles to the confluence of the Savery? Leaving things alone benefits trout.

    The always growing financial benefits from this dam seemed enormous at the outset, and now are ridiculous. Hay isn’t worth that much, and those outfitters downstream can’t be making that much money more with higher flow rates (unless they are), so it must be increased irrigated acreage. Who owns that land?

    I realize this is an unpopular viewpoint in the Little Snake River Valley but my family’s ranch is right above the High Savery Reservoir, and the Cutthroat have not been helped.

  3. An awful lot of money to spend to provide direct financial benefit to what is apparently a very small number of people. Considering the current state of our boom/bust economy, I would much prefer to see this kind of money spent on a project with broader benefit.

    I have not seen a figure anywhere on how much money the ranchers who will primarily benefit are putting into this project themselves. If the economic benefits are so great, then those who stand in the best position to enjoy those benefits should certainly be willing to make an investment.

    As I see it right now, this project is 100% Grade A Pork. Funding it while saying we have “tighten our belts” and drastically cut back funding for essential social, medical, and educational services should make our legislature ashamed of themselves, and should outrage the citizen’s of Wyoming.

  4. Back in the early 1970’s i worked for the private engineers who designed and oversaw the construction of the Lower Sunshine earthfill dam just west of Meeteetse. It was below the Upper Sunshine Dam, which sourced it’s water from the nearby greybull River and was built in the late 1930’s. The newer Lower Sunshine took its water from the Wood River ( a/k/a/ South Fork of the Greybull River ) . and together they stored and dumped into the Greybull for the benefit of irrigation mainly in the Emblem-Burlington area downstream of Meeteetse. Beets, beans, lots of hay , some corn, and of course graze. I knew the reservoir managers-ditch riders very well.

    The point being the Greybull Valley Irrigation District owns the dams and reservoirs outright. They have in some low water years completely drained the Upper Sunshine Reservoir ( bye bye trout! ) during autumn beetfield water calls, and the lake was refilled with the following Spring runoff. The Lower Sunshine was built to be spilled from the Upper Sunshine and better modulate yearround flows , besides being independently comntrolled if need be. Two reservoirs are better than one.

    The GVID is a co-op of owners/irrigators, and unlike a lot of dams in Wyoming they have paid for themselves many times over . Any public monies used to stake them was repaid wit interest. So much so that GVID built a THIRD reservoir in recent years, Roach Gulch about ten miles below Meeteetse in a sparse drainage emanating from the badlands south of the main Greybull River, filled with a 4.5 mile canal from the river upstream , effectively reusing the water the the Sunshines. While Roach Gulch Dam has its problems ( it leaks ) it is a modern dam . Came with hydropower built in , and hydropower turbines were retrofitted to Lower Sunshine. But again , GVID owns the dams and reservoirs and has very senior waterights to employ. State money used to construct will be repaid on good terms.

    I’ve never seen the Little Snake River or the country it drains. But my observation based on what I’ve read about the proposal there , mostly right here at WyoFile , tells me that Little Snake is solid pork and its benefactors are a very narrow group of irrigators. Special Interest stakeholders.. Solid pork in the eyes of the rest of us. Whereas the Greybull Valley – Sunshine- Roach irrigation district seems much more beneficial to all and a lot less odiferous of the smell of rancid pork. It’s a good example of how public-private partnerships should work IMHO.

    Perhaps the GVID business model should be followed down there in the Little Snake. I do not see how the proposed Little Snake can ever pay for itself in our lifetimes.

  5. No more dams! Haven’t y’all ruined enough of the west yet?! While others are taking them down, WY builds more. Pathetic.

  6. It seems to me that if the state spends $40 million on land purchases and permits the state is all in on the project even though funding to complete the project would not be in place or guaranteed. Where is the rest of the money going to come from? Not sure this all makes sense.