Wyoming water developers are pushing an $80-million dam in the Little Snake River drainage that a former legislator says is too expensive to serve only 100 irrigators.
The proposed 280-foot-high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County provides relief to too few irrigators and hasn’t been properly vetted, former water development commissioner and state legislator William “Jeb” Steward said. Sitting Wyoming water development commissioners want the Legislature to appropriate $40 million to continue planning and start building the proposed 10,000-acre-foot reservoir despite a host of unanswered questions. Committing the money early in 2018 would boost efforts to secure 100 acres of public land from the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest that would be required to complete the project, they say.
The reservoir would make up for irrigation shortages in the Little Snake River drainage south of Rawlins, including for users across the border in Colorado. The project also would provide $73.7 million in public benefits, from irrigation to recreation to environmentally beneficial river flows, backers say. That justifies the state granting tens of millions of dollars — 91 percent of the cost — and loaning millions more, the Wyoming Water Development office says in reports. Stockmen and women would have to repay the 50-year loan for 8.9 percent of the dam cost at a 4 percent interest rate.
But the project, “it’s just pork,” said William “Jeb” Steward, an Encampment resident who served in the Wyoming House as a Republican from 2007 to 2012. The dam would serve fewer than 2,000 acres of Wyoming cropland that doesn’t currently benefit from the nearby High Savery Reservoir, he said. Moreover, it would benefit some 5,000 acres in Colorado, where no firm financing partnership has been established, he asserted.
“The shortages are not large,” Steward said of the irrigation need. “When you look at the whole area they’re in the range of 2 percent to 3 percent short of water.”
The Water Development Office touts the West Fork Reservoir as the fifth in Gov. Matt Mead’s quest to build ten storage projects in a decade. But for Steward, “it can be opined that it doesn’t matter how high or how many people [such projects] benefit,” when it comes to justifying them.
For irrigators in the Little Snake River drainage, however, the proposed 6,500 acre feet of new stored irrigation water would relieve an average annual shortage of 3,600 acre feet. The $1.3 million spent so far on studies should be followed up with $40 million that will be requested from legislators in January, the irrigators say.
“Anytime we can take water that belongs to the State of Wyoming and show beneficial use, that is a plus for the State of Wyoming,” said Bob Davis, a member of the Savery-Little Snake River Conservancy, an irrigation taxing district whose members are willing to pony up as much as $20 an acre in annual fees for the reservoir. “If we have no beneficial use, we cannot store water,” Davis said. “It would have to leave the state.”
Forty million dollars would keep the project rolling, development staffers recommend. “Appropriating a portion [$40 million] of the funding required for construction will provide credibility to the legislation and offer the most expeditious path forward,” their recommendation states. Water commissioners agreed, without dissent, in a joint meeting with the Legislature’s Select Water Commission in November. Lawmakers could back that figure with a final vote at a select water committee meeting scheduled for Jan. 12, 2018.
In addition to the 6,500 acre-feet of irrigation water, the dam would impound 2,000 acre-feet as a conservation pool for recreation and fisheries. There would be another 1,500 acre-feet in a “minimum stream flow bypass account,” to benefit fisheries downstream, mostly in winter.
Federal legislation would likely be required to effect a land swap or some other arrangement with the U.S. Forest Service to allow construction of the dam and reservoir, the water office says. The state would want 100 acres of federal property, and some private land owned by a mining company.
Approximately 2 miles of West Fork Battle Creek and Haggerty Creek would be inundated by the proposed reservoir. The dam would be concrete and quite steep, developers say. Impounded water would serve 19,406 acres, some of which already benefit from the High Savery Dam completed in 2005 about 35 miles south of Rawlins.
The two reservoirs are needed, in part, because of a project that diverted water out of the Little Snake River basin east to the North Platte drainage where it eventually benefits the city of Cheyenne. “The state did feel obligated to build some storage,” to make up for that diversion, critic Steward said.
To compensate, “the state just built High Savery less than 10 miles away — the way the crow flies,” Steward said. But now Wyoming is back to do more development. “Of course people over there [in the Little Snake River drainage] don’t think they were satisfied, claimed they still had irrigation shortages.”
High Savery impounds 22,433 acre feet of water of High Savery Creek above the Little Snake River. The proposed West Fork Reservoir on Battle Creek would be on a different tributary, but also above the Little Snake River. The Little Snake River flows through the towns of Dixon and Baggs, into the Yampa River in Colorado that then empties into the Green River, part of the Colorado River complex.
The High Savery shortages are real, said dam programs director Jason Mead (no relation to Gov. Matt Mead) with the Water Development Office. There are an average of 2,930 acre-feet of shortages annually on acres already served by High Savery Reservoir, he said.
He would not comment on Steward’s assessment that fewer than 2,000 acres in Wyoming that are currently not served by High Savery would benefit from the West Fork Reservoir. The new reservoir would allow flexibility with High Savery operations, benefiting irrigators across the district, Mead said.
“The idea is to operate them in tandem, he said of the two dams. Having stored water can make or break a rancher, despite Steward’s assertions the benefits are minimal, Mead said. “It sure makes a big difference in that drought year,” he said. “In my opinion it keeps operations from going out of business.”
Financing and assessments
Today only 14,032 acres in the conservancy district are taxed for irrigation benefits. Between 76 and 100 irrigators benefit from the High Savery Dam today. Backers believe owners of other properties will sign up for the new project. Irrigation rates would increase from today’s $5 to $11 an acre to between $11.50 and $25 an acre if the new dam is built. “The conversations with the district sound as if it could be affordable,” Mead said.
Ranchers are ready, said Davis, a member of the benefitting conservancy tax district board. “The irrigators in this valley are committed to go forward,” he told WyoFile.
Steward is miffed that Wyoming would commit $40 million even when Colorado irrigators “have not been recognized as being a partner or participant in this project.” Yet irrigators south of the border could divert water from the reservoir that is released into the Little Snake River “as that stream meanders in and out of Colorado.”
Davis said the Savery-Little Snake conservancy taxing district is negotiating to secure Colorado commitments. “We are working now with the Pot Hook Conservancy District on behalf of the State of Colorado for some matching funds because they see the benefits of the reservoir,” he said.
Like many other aspects of the project, it’s “way too early to figure out who will be in charge” or even own the proposed reservoir, Davis said. “Forty million dollars allows the State of Wyoming to pursue the land swap. The commitment is what is allowing this to go forward. [In] final design [and] permitting, a lot of those questions will be addressed.
“Without the commitment from the State of Wyoming [saying] ‘this is a valid project,’ we can’t go down those other roads,” Davis said.
Even so, Wyoming could go it alone, Davis said. “Without any participation from Colorado, irrigators here would be paying somewhere around $20 an acre foot. They say yes, that’s doable.” Despite verbal assurances, there are no contracts in place or legal commitments by irrigators in Colorado and Wyoming, other than a resolution signed by the Davis’ conservancy tax district, which is the “sponsoring entity.”
Benefits touted for many
Wyoming can’t spend more on such water projects to benefit private ranching interests than will be generated in public benefits, according to reports and discussions by the Water Development Commission.
Initial studies for the West Fork Reservoir in 2012 calculated that public benefits would not accrue to the level required to allow state investment and also make the project affordable to irrigators.
The water development office made more detailed calculations in its most recent 2017 report. Those changes increased public benefits to $73.7 million. That gives the project a positive benefit/cost ratio of 1.2 to 1, developers say. “The public benefit for the life of the project would justify a 90-percent-plus grant, making West Fork Reservoir affordable for the [irrigation] district,” the water office said in its recommendation.
But Steward questioned the revisions. “Such changes appear to the casual observer an effort to force numbers,” he wrote in questions to the water commission. “It produces low confidence in how the numbers are calculated.”
He said a peer review of complex calculations won’t be made before the Army Corps of Engineers looks at applications for building the dam. That’s risky, Steward believes.
“Why do we have to wait ’til a project is so far along with over $40 [million] encumbered to realize that there are problems with the project,” he asked. Conversely, dedicating $40 million may produce a juggernaut that’s difficult to judge fairly.
Mead rejected the criticism and said consultants are qualified and fair. “They’re all professionals and well-respected in their field,” he said.
The difference in reports “is related to the accounting of re-use of return flows,” Mead wrote Steward in a response. Those return flows — water draining from irrigated lands back into a river — “are expected to occur with the introduction of storage water, which hadn’t been considered in the [earlier 2012] draft.”
As explained by Davis, the irrigator, “once the water runs across the land the return flows [to the river] are picked up [and used] again and again and again.”
Said Mead; “When we sent out the draft report the economics were one of the things that were called to question.” The agency took a hard look at its figures and did a better job of quantifying values, he said.
Benefits beyond irrigation may accrue to trout, including imperiled Colorado River cutthroat trout, which could thrive above the reservoir, Mead said. The 1,500 acre-feet for winter flows also would benefit fisheries.
Other benefits, such as recreation on the proposed new reservoir, are valued according to various standards, Mead said. And, there’s a multiplier effect from irrigators’ additional crops and income as new dollars circulate through the regional economy, he added.
“The benefit of sustainable ranching directly relates to open space,” he said. There would be “quality-of-life benefits” not only for Wyoming residents but those in Colorado. Flood control would improve. Already, landowners below the High Savery Dam are reaping $500 to $600 a day from anglers who pay to access the tailwater fishery there through their land, Mead said.
“There’s many things that go along with reservoirs,” he said. “They don’t just benefit the individual who gets the water diverted out of the creek.”
Wyoming determined to store more water
Gov. Matt Mead’s 10-in-10 program would not only benefit irrigators, but would “provide flexibility for future uses of stored water,” it says. In a West where water supplies are increasingly valuable, using state funds to build dams is seen by many as a way to invest. Money derived from mineral extraction, such as coal, oil and gas revenue, could be put into global stock markets or produce a continuing source of income and benefits to residents like those in Carbon County. Stored water could irrigate, be used for industry, or even sold down river, all to the benefit of Wyoming residents. Wyoming still has water in the Colorado River drainage to appropriate, including by impounding it in the West Fork Reservoir, Jason Mead said.
For Steward the project is an example of outdated spendthrift policies. “This project has become a poster child of how a bad idea can get traction,” he said. “Clearly, other areas of the state have demonstrated higher needs for late-season irrigation shortages that can be addressed with a higher benefit/cost ratio.”
He criticized water development in Wyoming in general. “This process is supported by spending millions of dollars on studies by consultants who are hired and judged by how well they can build a case to deliver positive recommendations for a project that the proponent wants to hear,” Steward said. Calculations and studies are so complex, Wyoming residents don’t have the resources to determine whether they are accurate, he said.
“I do not believe this is a good expense for the state of Wyoming,” he said in response to a question from Water Commissioner Karen Budd-Falen in November. “It’s a high-cost project.” There’s only 700 or 800 acres that actually needs irrigation water, he said.
Jason Mead, who rejected Steward’s complaints about biased contractors and processes, said contrasting water storage projects with one another is like comparing apples and oranges. “Each drainage is unique,” he said. “It’s pretty difficult to compare one drainage to another.”
At a hearing before the Joint Appropriations Committee last week, Water development director Harry LaBonde told lawmakers his office doesn’t have a process, per se, to compare the value of one project over another. “When we have a project that shows it is viable and feasible, we move it forward as quickly as we can,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be a project two years from now [where we say] ‘that’s going to be a better project.’”
In its recommendation, the Water Development Office said the $40 million for partial construction funding for the project “demonstrates that Wyoming is serious about pursuing this project and will allow the cost sharing discussions to proceed with a new sense of urgency.” One member at November’s joint water meeting, whom WyoFile was unable to identify in a recording of the proceedings, said lawmakers likely will try to raid water development accounts given the state’s economic condition. If they did not, “I might stand up here and sing ‘Hello Dolly!’” she said.
Irrigators want the $40 million to resolve lingering questions and get construction started. “There’s a whole bunch of things we can’t address until we get a commitment, and this $40 million is a commitment,” Davis said. “This is the down payment for us to pursue this project.”