Two main-stem dams on the Green River and a trans-basin diversion from that waterway may emerge as the highest-profile projects Gov. Matt Mead is considering in his statewide water strategy.
Declaring, “water is our most valuable resource,” the governor two weeks ago asked Wyoming residents to complete a 67-question survey on “potential initiatives” the state could undertake. Mead’s survey says the projects were selected because they represent “areas of opportunity where the greatest level of consensus existed.”
While the initiatives include large-scale conservation, like upgrading irrigation systems statewide, Mead suggested dam construction is on his agenda.
“I am committed to finding additional storage space,” he said at a press conference June 18. “We need more reservoir capacity. We have water we’re sending down the river.”
But a history of conflict, not consensus or agreement, overshadows the potential pipeline and Green River dams.
A trans-basin diversion from the Green to eastern Wyoming and Colorado inflamed passions when proposed in 2006. Before a federal agency rejected Colorado developer Aaron Million’s preliminary application in 2012, local governments in southeast Wyoming became intrigued by the prospect of a new water source. Now, the survey asks residents if they would favor a similar pipeline for Wyoming.
Fights over main-stem dams on the Green River have a longer history. Dams have been proposed and rejected over the last 50 years. The new list of potential projects includes a dam at Warren Bridge and another where the Green River crosses the Bridger-Teton National Forest boundary.
At Warren Bridge, a dam would impound 150,000 acre feet, flooding rolling sagebrush and grazing country, inundating part of a path used by migrating pronghorn and disrupting angling on a reach protected by in-stream flow rights. About three miles from the second potential dam site near the forest boundary, the endangered Kendall Warm Springs Dace (Rhinichthys osculus thermalis) lives in a yards-long spring, which is its only home on the planet.
The governor distributed the 67 questions in an online survey via email two weeks ago. The survey follows nine meetings in the state and advances Mead’s water strategy he announced during his state of the state address at the beginning of the 2014 legislative session.
In addition to seeking input on the Green River dams, the survey asks about a dam on Rock Creek near McFadden and storage projects on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Eight to ten key strategy points will likely emerge from the 67-question survey, Wyoming Water Development director Harry LaBonde Jr. said.
“A number of them will call for additional storage projects,” he said of the anticipated priorities. The governor’s strategy, “is going to bring more emphasis to the work we do,” in a department that has about a dozen reservoir plans underway.
That a dam at Warren Bridge northwest of Pinedale is again up for debate baffles one conservationist, Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies director of American Rivers. After Sublette County in 2010 sought $750,000 in state funds to begin drilling and planning for a dam on BLM land there, the state water development commission and a legislative committee rejected the request.
Among the reasons officials rejected the plan were a lack of demonstrated need, high costs and environmental impacts.
“Bad dam ideas never die,” Bosse said. “Dams have a place in Wyoming but the Upper Green is not one of them.”
While the Warren Bridge dam idea is referenced in the recent survey, it is not on the state construction list, LaBonde said.
“Water development does not have any active plans for that project,” he said. If the governor’s strategy includes it, however, “We would bring that back up and take a look at it.”
“It remains a viable site for a dam,” LaBonde said.
Other survey questions seek opinions about conservation, restoration and management, including whether Wyoming should take over operation of federal Bureau of Reclamation dams. Nevertheless, dam building will attract a lot of attention, Bosse said.
“Building large dams always seems to take front and center,” when states look to water plans, he said. Yet they are the “most expensive, ineffective and controversial elements.”
Five of the major projects considered for the strategy would be on the Green. The longest tributary of the Colorado, it is subject to the Colorado River Compact, legislation, court decisions and interstate agreements.
Wyoming gets its share of water under the Colorado River Compact only after satisfying required flows to Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada, said Jason Robison, a law professor at the University of Wyoming.
Wyoming gets 14 percent of what remains. Colorado, Utah and New Mexico divvy up the rest.
In low-water years, Wyoming could lose out, despite its location at the headwaters of the Colorado River basin, the survey says. “Having access to storage in large reservoirs on the Green River will help prepare Wyoming to meet its future water needs and to meet obligations to downstream states in poor water years,” it says.
Western states build reservoirs so they can capitalize on their share of water the compact allocates, Robison said. But if they don’t use their water, they don’t lose rights.
“Wyoming has a firm entitlement,” he said. “Non-use — that wouldn’t have any impact on the persistence, security of that 14 percent. That water right won’t be subject to abandonment or forfeiture.”
In addition to the Warren-Bridge, the forest-boundary and trans-basin proposals, the state also mulls two projects on the Green involving Fontenelle Dam and reservoir. One would use wind power to pump water upstream from the Green’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, perhaps to Fontenelle Reservoir near LaBarge.
During times of high electricity demand and calm winds, water would be released from Fontenelle to produce hydropower.
The final major Green River project would upgrade Fontenelle Dam, to “allow roughly 200,000 acre feet of storage to be utilized on the Upper Green without a noticeable impact on the environmental footprint of the development.” The 20-mile-long reservoir has a “total capacity” of 345,360 acre-feet but an “active capacity” of 150,500, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
At issue is armoring on the upstream face of the mile-long dam to protect the structure from wave erosion, said Wayne Pullan, BOR area manager in Provo, Utah. Riprap only extends part way down the face, so the reservoir cannot be drained beyond a point before exposing the dam to erosion.
Armoring wasn’t completed because there was no contract for that water at the time and the Bureau was being wise with taxpayer money, Pullan said.
However, lawmakers today are looking for a way to use more Green River water, including the possibility of constructing a major industrial park. The park could be built in southwest Wyoming, where it would also take advantage of the area’s natural gas and trona.
Toward that end, legislators early this year traveled to Edmonton, Alberta where they toured the $30 billion hydrocarbon processing complex called Industrial Heartland, which could serve as a model. The $30 billion project was developed with a number of public and private partners.
Outside the Green River Basin, the governor’s water strategy list includes potential projects to upgrade the Glendo Dam and build a new reservoir on Rock Creek near McFadden. A dam on bucolic Rock Creek could help “provide assurance that Wyoming meets its obligations related to the North Platte in the face of increasing environmental pressure,” Mead’s strategy said.
The survey also asks about potential reservoirs on the Wind River Indian Reservation, already the site of major irrigation and reservoir systems. Perched on the eastern edge of the Wind River Range, the reservation includes stunning granite gorges carved over the ages by glaciers and rivers.
The country holds “some of the best existing locations in Wyoming for storage,” Mead’s survey says. Water is already stored on the Wind River Reservation at Boysen, Pilot Butte and Washakie reservoirs, and Bull Lake.
Not all potential construction projects would be new and monumental. The survey asks whether a task force should examine large canal systems for upgrading to stem water loss.
When the governor talks about “additional storage space,” he doesn’t always mean building new dams. “We want to look at the option to resize the level of some reservoirs we already have,” Mead said.
Also, 10 “small water storage facilities” are being planned as part of the state’s “Ten in Ten Project,” one of the governor’s potential initiatives. It seeks to complete them in a decade.
They would be located in Carbon, Sweetwater, Johnson, Hot Springs, Sublette, Big Horn, Sheridan, and Lincoln counties. They would range in size between 2,000 and 11,000 acre-feet.
The survey is not a popularity contest in which a project with the most votes would advance as a priority.
“It should not be assumed that these initiatives are the Water Strategy; rather, they represent a pool of possibilities from which the final initiatives will be selected,” Mead’s office said in releasing an executive summary of the strategy. “…Feedback provided can inform future decision making; it is advisory not compelling.”
Water commission still in loop
The state’s water development commission, a 10-member citizen board supported by LaBonde and his staff of 23, is charged with funding and developing water projects. While the commission has its own process for considering and proposing projects, “I’m charged with carrying out the governor’s directive,” LaBonde said.
The commission was established in 1975. It receives funding from its own dedicated stream of state severance taxes on mineral production, which is separate from the state’s General Fund.
That severance tax money, which amounts to an estimated $84.5 million in 2013-2014, flows into Water Development Accounts I, II, and III. At the close of this year’s budget session, the three accounts had a combined balance of $154.2 million that could be spent on water development. (See page 6 of the state fiscal profile for more details.)
As the governor’s office creates the water strategy, Mead anticipates close cooperation with the water commission, he said at his press conference. Many recommendations, including those for dam building or modification, would go through the citizen board.
“That falls squarely in front of the water development commission,” LaBonde said of construction projects. The governor’s water strategy will bring “a greater emphasis on that part of our program,” he said.
“That’s a good thing for [the] water development [office] because that’s the business we’re in.”
Mead’s survey is subdivided into four themes: conservation, development, management and restoration. Each has its own online survey form. He wants people to comment by Aug. 4.
The survey about conservation and restoration asks 16 questions on topics ranging from recharging aquifers and planning for floods to using graywater from sinks and washing machines for irrigation.
A state strategy could include better accounting to ensure municipal users pay appropriately for water and spending state money on private property for water conservation.
The development survey asks about the major projects, and some other potential programs.
Whether the state should manage federal Bureau of Reclamation facilities such as dams one question in the third survey, which deals with water management.
Other questions include whether the state should actively challenge federal attempts to “erode” state water authority and law.
Finally, the fourth survey focuses on water and watershed restoration, including groundwater pollution at an abandoned Atlas Missile maintenance site about 17 miles west of Cheyenne, which threatens the city’s water supply. Other efforts could replace invasive Russian olive with cottonwoods or make irrigation systems fish-friendly.