Wyoming lawmakers kept the widely questioned $80 million West Fork Dam project alive Saturday, appropriating $4,698,000 to investigate and acquire Forest Service property for construction.
The sum would allow Wyoming water developers to pursue the proposed 280-foot high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek in southern Carbon County for another two years, according to discussions among lawmakers who reached the compromise figure. The $4.7 million should cover anticipated expenses over the next two years as the state tries to obtain title to some 100 acres of federal property in the Medicine Bow National Forest, plus some private land owned by a mining concern.
Wyoming’s plan for developing the West Fork Dam calls for securing the land first, avoiding review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which governs projects on federal property. A NEPA review would outline the environmental impact of development, involve public input and allow advocates and opponents to weigh costs against benefits.
“What we’re looking for was a congressional land-transfer approach,” Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde told lawmakers last week. “In order to do that, you have to set up what lands [would be] acquired, and what lands would be offered in trade.”
In the case of water development on federal property, proponents usually must show a purpose and need, among other things. The Forest Service might require proof that an alternative can’t be found on private lands and that more efficient methods of meeting a demand — such as conservation and sprinkler irrigation — are not feasible.
But federal involvement “adds millions of dollars to that [permitting] process,” LaBonde told lawmakers. “Dealing with the Forest Service … very much complicates the NEPA process,” whereas securing the property first “very much streamlines” potential development.“Five million [dollars] gets us through that land acquisition phase,” LaBonde told a legislative conference committee.
Dam supporters say the plan must be pursued expeditiously in today’s favorable political climate, which may be fleeting.
“We have a very, very short window,” said Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), a project backer who represents residents of the Little Snake River drainage.
“We don’t know if we’re going to have [U.S. Sen. John] Barrasso on [the Senate Committee on Environment and] public works. We may not be in a position two years from now to have the opportunity in Congress to push this thing through. The urgency is real here to try to get this land process, this stuff now.”
Tortured path cuts project funding by 88 percent
Supporters will pursue the land acquisition with only 12 percent of the $40 million commitment they initially sought. Senate backers salvaged the project after House critics stripped the West Fork Dam from the water construction bill, an unusual event in pro-water-development Wyoming.
Criticism from the House, and Senate skepticism too, came at a time when lawmakers are cutting education spending by millions of dollars as energy revenues dip. The proposed 10,000 acre foot reservoir would directly aid only 67 to 100 irrigators and provide new water to only some 2,000 acres. That led skeptics to characterize the project as a $700,000 subsidy to individual ranchers. The per-acre-foot price made the irrigation cost “more than the land itself is worth,” Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said. A $73,000 per acre-foot price tag “scares the bejesus out of me,” he said. The project would store water at 1,000 times the cost of other water in Wyoming, Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) argued.
Not only is the project expensive and directly beneficial to few people, it would aid Colorado, which hasn’t agreed to share costs, a particular irritant to Cheyenne solons. An amendment cured that flaw, requiring a pro-rata share from that state and financial commitments before construction could begin.
Further, the project was justified on an economic analysis of benefits that drew doubt.
The reservoir above the Little Snake River would cost far more than the nearly $60 million in the state’s water construction account. That account fills at a rate of less than $1 million a year, a fact that troubled lawmakers who criticized the Wyoming Water Development Office and commission for not having a priority list of projects derived from any sort of cost/benefit analysis. LaBonde provided a priority list of five projects that have been fully vetted. West Fork was last on the list.
But lawmakers were seeking an accounting of the 15 or 20 potential dams they said are significantly less expensive that provide what one House member said was “a better bang for our buck.” As Case framed the issue, “Why would we think this is a good idea when there are other projects we could be funding?”
Proposed to provide late-season irrigation plus environmental and recreational benefits, the 280-foot-high dam and reservoir would be built on the West Fork of Battle Creek above the Little Snake River. The proposal had strong backing from the Select Water Committee and the appointed Wyoming Water Development Commission after what was said to be a decade or more of planning and study.
Nevertheless, the project’s troubled journey through the House and Senate was remarkable for a water bill. Asked whether he had ever seen a water fight like this in his more than 20 years in the Senate, Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) told Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) “not like this.”
But the decade-long record of investigation alone justified continuing with funding and constructing the concrete West Fork Dam, backers said. They began to criticize the critics themselves. Elected lawmakers shouldn’t interfere once proposals get so far along, water backers said several times.
“Used to be somebody got shot”
Dam supporters took aim at water critics after the House cut the $40 million appropriation from the water construction bill and sent it on to the Senate where Meier lit into foes.
“It used to be that when we had an omnibus water bill hit the floor, somebody got shot if they amended it,” Meier told the committee, to chuckled response. “And maybe we need to bring that — something like that back.”
He called colleagues ill-informed and said they started the shooting battle.
“The people who did it had no idea,” Meier said of those who stripped the project in the House. “They didn’t hear any of the discussion of what select water went through, or the select Ag committee went through. They shot from the hip and I think did the work that we did on select water a grave injustice.”
Meier’s remark led a representative from the Wyoming Outdoor Council to pause before speaking about the dam’s shortcomings. He said he would make his comments “at the risk of getting shot…”
Meier later explained his gun joke. “It’s not actual shooting,” he said. “It’s like the legislator gets in trouble.”
Sen. Hicks, (R-Baggs) who works for the Little Snake River Conservation District in the Little Snake River drainage, called the opposition “extremely troubling” because of the work done before. “To in one hour make a decision that took eight years to get through the process — I think is a tremendous disservice to the people of Wyoming and all those entities involved….”
Lawmakers shouldn’t tinker with water development bills, Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said in conference committee meeting. “We need to get a precedent about ‘we’ll work this water bill and everyone leave it alone,’” he said.
The bill, which now requires Colorado irrigators to share costs on a pro-rata basis, goes next to Gov. Matt Mead, a water development advocate who counts the proposed 10,000-acre-foot reservoir in Carbon County as part of his “10-in-10” plan to build 10 storage projects in a decade. In an interview with WyoFile, Mead also complained about those who question recommendations proposed by an appointed commission serving time voluntarily.
“People will like and dislike the water projects as a project,” Mead said, “but I do think that the system on the water projects has generally been pretty good. But … if you go through and go through and then at the last minute you change and say ‘We don’t want project nine,’ that creates problems in the process in terms of why spend two years planning this if it’s subject to change at the spur of the moment.”
But Sen. Case rejected the contention that lawmakers should only rubber-stamp proposals. He dismissed one lawmaker’s contention that a member of the public didn’t even have standing to ask questions and that criticism at the Capitol came “a little late in the game.”
Debates in the Capitol, “this is our process,” Case told colleagues as they argued about the merits of the dam. “It’s not about years and years in the water development [system].”
Wyoming has studied water development in the Little Snake River drainage before, starting as early as 1985 when the Sandstone Dam and corresponding 52,000 acre-foot reservoir were planned, but never built. Subsequently, Wyoming constructed the High Savery Dam and its 22,433 acre feet reservoir on Savery Creek, above the Little Snake River. Investigations for yet another reservoir in the drainage led water developers to settle on the West Fork Dam site, some 20 miles from High Savery.
But irrigators couldn’t afford to contribute to the project at the usual 33 percentage rate. That resulted in developers proposing a funding model in which the state would pick up more than 90 percent of the costs and fund a loan to ranchers for their share. To enable that funding, however, developers would have to show that the dam and reservoir would produce as much value in public benefits as the state was spending on the project — more than $73 million.
As Hicks described the project, it would depart from the usual template that pitted environmentalists against ranchers. It would not be undertaken unless it had an overall positive benefit. To that end, construction would enable new work to remediate abandoned copper mines without exacerbating pollution and possibly reducing it. A study touted recreation benefits and other boons to the community, including windfalls from the multiplier effect of creating additional forage and fishing on private and public land. In a change from earlier investigations, a 2017 study calculated the benefit of water returned to rivers from irrigated fields, counting it as being available to ranchers a second time.
But the critical funding study — the lynchpin in justifying construction of the West Fork Dam — became public only in October last year. So while Wyoming has been studying the Little Snake River drainage for decades, essential documents supporting construction of the West Fork Dam have been public for only about five months.
A makeup for water diverted to Cheyenne?
Wyoming owed irrigators in the Little Snake River drainage additional water storage after diverting flows from their basin starting in 1965, water office director LaBonde told lawmakers. The flows through a tunnel under the Continental Divide belong to the City of Cheyenne, which accrues additional municipal supplies for its residents in the North Platte River drainage.
There was an agreement, “I’ll call it a promise,” LaBonde said, to replace those diversions. High Savery, at 22,433 acre feet, first filled in 2005, was the first project to be completed under that promise, he said.
Although Cheyenne can fill its reservoir on the east side of the divide with as much as 22,600 acre feet, it typically doesn’t divert that much annually. The city’s Board of Public Utilities has redirected an average of 9,673 acre-feet annually between 2007 and 2016, an official said.
West Fork backers said the two reservoirs would be operated in tandem to benefit irrigators and fisheries, ensuring that trout, endangered species and other wildlife benefit. But the next phase of the Little Snake promise is not supposed to be undertaken until Cheyenne begins the third stage of its municipal diversion program, an eventuality that has yet to occur, Sen. Case said.
The real value of water
While dam supporters have promoted the 6,500 acre feet of irrigation water that would be impounded behind the West Fork Dam as necessary for late-season irrigation, there are other reasons to impound the flows, lawmakers said time and again throughout the recent legislative session. By storing water and claiming “beneficial use,” Wyoming accrues rights that protect the water from downstream interests keen on claiming their own shares.
“If you don’t use [it] you lose it,” Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) told his chamber. Citing a sense of urgency, Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) pointed to geographic fact; “The water flows out of state – that’s the problem,” he said on the Senate floor. Phoenix grew and now bustles because of water once earmarked for agriculture, he said. “That’s our water.”
Wyoming might need to make a similar conversion, Kinskey said. “I would urge us, at every opportunity in Wyoming, to protect [water] from downstream appropriation. I would urge us to not be focused too much on the here-and-now [but] where future generations will be 50-100 years from now.”
Arguments about expense make sense “if this were a pure agriculture proposition,” Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) told colleagues on the Senate floor. But agricultural use is “a holding maneuver,” he said. “It will give us water that, as the state develops in the next 100 years is available for municipal use,” or even for mineral development.
“It gives us some water that we can preserve and not lose to the downstream states as they put their shares to use and take ours.”
The debates over the cost of the project and each acre-foot “are somewhat invalid,” Sen. Driskill said. “The real values of our water are non-agricultural. The likely future use… will be for people to drink.”
Andrew Graham contributed to this story.