The Wyoming Water Development Commission organized a tour of the LaPrele dam Aug. 12, 2021. Constructed in 1909, the dam is now considered at risk of catastrophic failure. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

In what could be one of the biggest requests to the Legislature in years, state water development officials are eyeing $281 million or more to fund agricultural irrigation works, dams, reservoirs, domestic water projects and other programs.

During three days of meetings last week, lawmakers first advanced about $33 million in appropriations recommended by the Wyoming Water Development Office. Funded projects include a few municipal supply projects, numerous irrigation improvements, cloud seeding and a review of aging infrastructure, among other things.

The Legislature’s Select Water Committee then backed a draft bill seeking an additional $95 million from American-Rescue-Plan-Act or general-fund money to establish a statewide water infrastructure grant program. 

Then, in an 11th-hour proposal, the legislative committee asked its staff to draft an amendment — or another stand-alone bill — to add another $152.8 million to 2022 appropriations, mostly for five major agricultural dam, reservoir and irrigation projects.

There could be even more added to the almost $153 million amendment or new bill.

“If people have things that they would like to include in that draft, I think that would be appropriate,” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) told Select Water Committee co-chairman Rep. Evan Simpson (R-Afton).

Wyoming has turned a corner since facing a diminished state budget due to declines in coal and oil-and-gas tax revenue, Hicks suggested. There’s “a certain amount of money, funds, available,” he said, pointing to the American Rescue Plan Act that seeks to pull the country out of its COVID-19 slump. Additional funds, possibly from rising oil and gas activity, also could be available, he said.

All of which could be used to shore up a water development program that Hicks has said repeatedly has been unfairly plundered by the Legislature.

“By the time we get through this biennium, we will have raided water development account[s] to the tune of about $55 million,” he told lawmakers last week. In recent years, the Legislature directed funds that should have been used for water development, Hicks said, to instead finance other projects and the State Engineer’s Board of Control, which settles disputes over water rights.

Three avenues for appropriations

The Select Water Committee’s three-pronged agenda would fund the $33 million in 2022 water development commission programs, add the $95 million statewide infrastructure grant program using ARPA and general-fund money and spend another $152 million under Hicks’ water development amendment.

Hicks’ call for $152 million — the largest funding avenue — could be added to the ARPA bill or emerge as a separate stand-alone measure, according to discussion by the committee. It would see $35 million go toward the Alkali Reservoir near Hyattville in Big Horn County, the cost of which has increased from $35 to $59 million.

Jason Mead in 2015 describes to irrigators and others the plans for expanding the Upper Leavitt Reservoir in Big Horn County. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Another $30 million would go toward the Leavitt Reservoir expansion, an additional $25 million would armor the Fontenelle Dam to increase its usable capacity and $21.8 million more would help resolve the collapse of the Goshen irrigation tunnel.

Hicks’ proposed amendment or stand-alone bill also would earmark $30 million to help rebuild the dangerous LaPrele Dam above Douglas. The proposed appropriation also would infuse several other water development accounts with $11 million.

The next largest block of funds advanced by the Select Water Committee last week — $95 million from ARPA money for a statewide infrastructure grant program — would be disbursed by the Wyoming Water Development Office in coordination with two other state agencies. The Office of State lands and Investments, which oversees drinking water funds, and the state Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for aspects of wastewater projects and discharges, would be involved with the grants.

“By the time we get through this biennium, we will have raided water development account[s] to the tune of about $55 million.”

Sen. Larry hicks

Grants would be limited to $7.5 million per project and they would cover 85% of the cost of a proposal.

Funds appropriated through the ARPA bill could be constrained by the caveats in that federal rescue program, however. The federal emergency COVID-19 relief program funds water infrastructure programs that appear to be directed mainly toward domestic and municipal drinking water and wastewater programs, not agricultural and irrigation dams, reservoirs and canals.

ARPA funds are being distributed according to an interim rule that in one clause specifies investments will be made for “projects that improve access to clean drinking water [and] improve wastewater and stormwater infrastructure systems.”

The Select Water Committee’s third avenue for funding grew from the Water Development Office and Commission’s annually scheduled advancement of water programs that this year totals about $33 million. Those projects involve everything from new and ongoing cloud seeding and a review of its effectiveness to municipal and domestic water supply projects, irrigation and agricultural programs and a statewide assessment of crumbling infrastructure.

What about the infrastructure bill?

During last week’s meetings there was little if any discussion regarding the $1 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law Monday. But earlier this year the Select Water Committee wanted that measure to include provisions for water development in the state.

“As we start to see an infrastructure bill develop … it’s certainly something that we’ve conveyed to our congressional delegation that water is a big issue in Wyoming,” Hicks said in April, “and that we’d like to see a significant component in any infrastructure bill.”

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) stands and speaks during the first day of the 66th Wyoming Legislature Monday, March 1, 2021, inside the state Capitol. (Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle/Wyoming News Exchange)

Although he stopped short of endorsing the federal infrastructure bill, Hicks asked Wyoming legislative staff to stay in touch with the congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., and to get updates.

On Aug. 10, U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis provided one public update when they voted against the infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate 69-30. On Nov. 5, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney also voted against the infrastructure bill as the measure passed the House 228-206.

To further buttress water development and prevent what developers see as a raid on funds, Hicks and Wyoming Water Development Office Director Brandon Gebhart in April proposed an explanatory program to be presented to “anybody willing to listen.”

Such a presentation may “enlighten some people in the Legislature,” Gebhart said. Hicks called the planned presentation “education” for lawmakers and said it should come during the first day or two of the 2022 legislative session.Last week’s funding proposals did not include several other ongoing projects — including a proposal to build a 280foot-high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek above the Little Snake River in Carbon County, and a plan to lower New Fork Lake by some 21 feet to provide late-season irrigation. While those were not immediately included in Hick’s amendment, they are on a $414-million wish list of water infrastructure projects reviewed by WyoFile that the state assembled earlier this year.

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. Exciting news. Water development will always a big plus for Wyomings furniture. We have a lot of undeveloped water rights here in the state that we stand to lose if not dealt with soon.

  2. But, we don’t want the Federal appropriation from the American Rescue Plan. Those representing us folks in Wyoming all voted against it. So I for one believe that states who’s whole delegation votes no should not need the money.

    1. Yes, I agree. Vote against a democrat sponsored bill but then have your hand out for the money. Isn’t this yet another fine example of the hypocrisy of our politicians?

  3. We don’t have a diverse economy – just tourism, ag, oil and gas and some mining. Everyday I see semis loaded with sugar beets, hay, cattle, barley, beans and corn/sileage being moved around the Big Horn Basin – the economy up here is largely dependent on the availability of irrigation water – especially so since this area is semi-arid – 7 to 11 inches of moisture is common which is equivalent to Arizona.
    Ever since the blizzard of 1886-1887 the cattle industry has realized that hay and shelter on our bottom lands during the winter is a must in order to graze in Wyoming. The feed necessary to sustain our livestock during the winter is largely grown with irrigation water much of which comes from impoundments. The Platte River bottom lands are extremely important to the livestock industry as are many other sources of irrigation water.
    Its a lot of money but the reality is that we don’t have many economic horses to ride and water is as precious as gold in Wyoming. The old adage “use it or loose it” certainly applies in this case. I support the proposed spending for these reasons.

  4. The high cost of any single dam project for the benifit of very few ranchers has always been a point of contension. When monies are allocated to construct these structures part of the bill to develope these structures should inculde wording that if a time comes when additional domestic water supplies are needed water from these reservoirs can be utilized for this use. They should not be built soley for ag use.

    1. Yes, it is taking advantage of the 99 percent that aren’t ranchers/farmers. Most states are getting rid of these boondoggle projects. This is from a state that won’t even approve medicaid, a program that we have already paid for. These ag folks don’t take care of the structures they benefit from, and will expect the public to do so. If it is approved, the reservoirs and the tail waters should be accessible to the public.