New Fork Lake at the edge of the Bridger Wilderness is one location where the state is considering enlarging an outlet dam to impound more water. The U.S. Forest Service has asked the state to justify using federal property instead of private land, saying many federal resources could be affected by Wyoming's proposal. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile).

Legislators will continue Wyoming’s effort to build more dams and reservoirs when they vote Friday on a draft bill to spend $12 million on 11 projects statewide.

The largest sums — $8.5 million total — are proposed for planning two reservoirs in Big Horn and part of Washakie counties. Together, the Nowood River-Alkali Creek and Shell Valley-Leavitt Reservoir projects would cost $74 million in 2014 dollars if built.

Other planning is proposed for enlarging a dam at New Fork Lake and reactivating Middle Piney Reservoir in Sublette County. A draft bill proposes $2 million to increase water held in Big Sandy Reservoir in Sublette and Sweetwater counties.

While not directly linked to Gov. Matt Mead’s proposal to build 10 water storage projects in as many years, the funding would set the state on that course. The results of Mead’s statewide water strategy survey are expected to back his 10-in-10 program.

Select Water Committee members:
Gerald Geis.
Stan Cooper.
Bernadine Craft.*
Ogden Driskill.
John Hines.
Curt Meier.
Mark Semlek
Stan Blake*
John Eklund
Michael Madden
Glen Moniz
David Northrup

Legislators are expected to approve most proposals, which have been vetted by the Wyoming Water Development Commission, an appointed board, said  Rep. Mark Semlek (R-Moorcroft). He is chairman of the Select Water Committee, the legislative body that will consider three draft water bills in Cheyenne on Friday. They are titled “Water development-amendments,” “Omnibus water bill-planning” and “Omnibus water bill-construction.”

“Unquestionably, the governor’s water strategy and the interest of the Wyoming Water Development Commission and Select Water Committee are all moving in the same direction,” he said. “It has been planned for a number of years to try to build some additional storage in Wyoming.

“The challenge to that has been the permitting process and the cost — quite high — and there’s no certainty you’ll get approval to build these projects,” Semlek said.

Projects might take 30 years

Wyoming’s water dreams could take 30 years to be realized, he said.

“I think there’s around a dozen on the drawing board,” Semlek said of proposed dams and other projects. “We don’t have near enough money to [immediately] do that.”

He pointed to $7 million already approved for the Little Snake West Fork Reservoir planned in Carbon County. It would cost $68 million to develop.

That amounts to “a little over half of what we have in [the construction] account,” Semlek said. Mineral severance taxes fund the account.

Nevertheless, it’s likely bills approved by the select committee, the bills also go through the Joint Interim Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee, will pass, given their widespread scrutiny.

“It typically goes through with a 90-0 vote,” Semlek said.

The Big Horn county projects appear to be the most ambitious. The Wyoming Water Development Commission already has backed the proposals, green-lighting them for the Select Water Committee.

The Omnibus Water bill for planning proposes $4 million for the Nowood River Storage-Alkali Creek project near Hyattville.

“The Nowood River Watershed is underutilized by a wide variety of interests because it does not have adequate storage balanced with consistent stream flows,” a project description says. “Agricultural operations, as well as fish and wildlife, have been negatively impacted in the watershed, much like many other parts of the state, by severe drought conditions which have led to limited late season flows and calls on the river.”

The project ultimately would build a new reservoir near Hyattville for $36 million. The other large planning project is nearby.

It would allocate $4.5 million for a new Leavitt Reservoir in Shell Valley. If completed, that “off-channel” impoundment would cost $38 million.

The bill proposes $300,000 to plan for another reservoir in the Nowood watershed — the Meadowlark Lake impoundment in the Bighorn Mountains.

Proposed dam and reservoir storage projects

The following projects are listed in a draft funding bill the Select Water Committee will consider in Cheyenne on Friday:
• Big Sandy; Sublette,
Sweetwater County
• Clear Creek;
Johnson County
• Greybull Valley;
Big Horn, Park Counties
• Meeks Cabin;
Uinta County
• Middle Piney; Sublette
• New Fork Lake; Sublette
• Nowood-Alkali Cr;
Big Horn, Washakie Counties
• Nowood-Meadowlark Lake;
Big Horn, Washakie Counties
• Shell Valley-Leavitt;
Big Horn County
Total — $ 12,850,000

Sublette County irrigators also would benefit from the dam-planning bill.

Efforts to raise the dam at Big Sandy Reservoir by five feet have been complicated by questions about the structure’s integrity, the flooding of wetlands and destruction of grouse habitat. Studies have discounted the opportunity to generate electricity.

Nevertheless, Water Development Commission backed a $2 million allocation to study ways to overcome the environmental challenges.

“Considering the environmental impacts of a permanent raise, work has been shifted to analyzing a spillway raise on Big Sandy Reservoir and water management within the system,” a report to the commission says. “If temporary inundation with a spillway raise can be proven not to adversely impact wetlands and/or sage grouse habitat, there is potential to make modifications to the Big Sandy Dam … It is believed that temporary inundation should not be considered a permanent impact to sage grouse habitat.”

New Fork Lake dam would raise lake level

At New Fork Lake, irrigators want to add another three to four feet to a dam at the outlet of the wilderness-edge lake. New Fork Lake is in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and is a popular recreation site.

Irrigators said it would ensure late season water supply in drought years and an upgrade would also rehabilitate a makeshift bridge used to access a boat ramp and campground. The proposal — $300,000 for planning — doesn’t address shoreline erosion or potential impacts to wetlands.

Semlek said he has a hard time understanding how enlarging an existing lake could destroy wetlands, rather than create them.

“If we [were] to increase the storage capacity of a reservoir, the obvious geometric [result] is you’re increasing the perimeter,” he said. “If you increase the perimeter, you increase the amount of wetlands.”

Wetlands may not be so easily defined, however. Willows can be flooded and killed by rising and falling lake levels. Such rapid changes also may be deleterious to underwater vegetation — a key component of wetlands — on which waterfowl rely.

A moose traverses wetlands at the inlet to New Fork Lake in Sublette County where the state will likely study raising a dam and the lake level. Among the worries about expanding existing impoundmens is the potential loss of wetlands, which has emerged as a problem with a plan to enlarge another Sublette County reservoir, Big Sandy. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile - click to enlarge)
A moose traverses wetlands at the inlet to New Fork Lake in Sublette County where the state will likely study raising a dam and the lake level. Among the worries about expanding existing impoundmens is the potential loss of wetlands, which has emerged as a problem with a plan to enlarge another Sublette County reservoir, Big Sandy. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Elsewhere in Sublette County, the U.S. Forest Service was set to decommission the Middle Piney Reservoir because of fears its dam could fail. Today the gates are left open and it does not hold water.

The dam was built using a natural landslide that helps form the lake. Now there’s an effort to rehabilitate the structure, and $150,000 would help plan for that.

“Constructing the project would provide a viable supplemental irrigation supply for local irrigators at a positive benefit/cost ratio,” water commission documents say. “The project would keep the dam, possessing a pre-Colorado River Compact water right, from being breached by the USFS. Furthermore, the additional funds would prevent the project from being delayed should environmental review become more rigorous than originally understood.”

Enlargement of the Meeks Cabin Dam also is on the legislative agenda. A study would cost $600,000 for that Uinta-County project.

Cloud seeding report due

Legislators also will consider a $170,000 request to make part of an experimental cloud-seeding program operational. The appointed Water Development Commission is scheduled to hear on Thursday the results of a years-long study about weather modification.

It has recommended that legislators make part of the system — along the Wind River Range largely in Sublette County — operational instead of experimental.

Without the funding, cloud seeding stations would be dismantled. If the experiment ends up indicating they are worthwhile, reconstructing them would be an addition cost.

The Water Development Commission meets on Wednesday afternoon in Cheyenne to hear the cloud-seeding report. It meets Thursday with the select committee of legislators in a workshop to talk over projects and finalize its recommendations. Legislators hold their own meeting Friday to vote on three water bills.

Those bills propose funding a variety of other agricultural, municipal and residential water development and conservation projects.

One controversy the citizen Water Development Commission must resolve centers on the Midvale Irrigation District in Fremont County. That district is embroiled in a lawsuit with its members over whether they are being fairly taxed for improvements to a network of canals and diversions.

Two Midvale projects and one for the outlet of Bull Lake Reservoir are on the commission agenda for discussion Thursday. The requests are for $833,000 for irrigation improvements. Another $2.6 million would go toward spillway rehabilitation at Bull Lake, a $26 million project that would receive federal funds.

One Water Development Commission board member, Karen Budd-Falen, said in the board’s November meeting she would recuse herself. She is an attorney who represents irrigators who sued the irrigation district.

As she recused herself she outlined the conflict from her clients’ point of view and asked the board to table the Midvale requests, which it did.

“My problem with this and my concern with funding this project is … they’re suing part of their members to recoup part of their grant money from the Wyoming Water Development Commission,” she said. “I would recommend that we place this project on hold until either that litigation gets worked out or until the complaint is amended to take out any hint or type of trying to sue to recoup grant money that was given by the State of Wyoming.”

WyoFile articles

Green River dams get little support, Sept. 30, 2014

Mead wants feedback on more Wyoming dams, June 24, 2014

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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