The Wyoming Senate struggled to keep a beleaguered dam proposal in Carbon County alive, heavily conditioning a $10 million appropriation in a water construction bill Tuesday.
Senators voted 25-5 to reinstate $10 million for the 280-foot-high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek but said no funds could be spent until “additional funding commitments” are secured from beneficiaries, including irrigators in Colorado. Lawmakers must approve any expenditures from the $10 million set aside for the project, the Senate’s version of the bill says.
What started out as a project to provide late-season irrigation to 67-100 irrigators, enabling cultivation of perhaps only 2,000 additional acres owned by fewer than 10 ranchers in Wyoming, was ultimately touted by lawmakers as a project to store water before others grabbed it downstream.
In the shuffle, project critics remained steadfast that the dam is too expensive for its yield and that it would tie up funds that would be better spent on more beneficial projects elsewhere in Wyoming.
Arguments for construction included a parade of proclamations about hard-working, visionary ancestors who secured water rights and how dam building made Wyoming and America great.
“I would urge us to not be focused too much on the here-and-now,” Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) said. Instead, Wyoming should be looking “where future generations will be 50 to 100 years from now.”
But Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) said the argument had run off-track. “It seems like there’s a lot of conflating going between how good water projects are in general,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“This one has been pulled out and singled out … because there are some very questionable [aspects] to it. The question is — is this a good project, does the project make sense?”
The bill is expected to face its final reading in the Senate on March 7. The House earlier stripped the project — estimated by consultants to cost $80 million — from the water construction bill, setting up a potential showdown between the two chambers.
Wyoming has other projects
Legislators received conflicting answers from water developers about whether the state’s water program prioritizes projects. At a Joint Appropriations Committee meeting late last year, for example, Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said projects are not prioritized.
“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.’”
But Carbon County Sen. Larry Hicks, (R-Baggs) a member of the Select Water Committee and staunch supporter of the project, told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday something different. “We set a priority list,” he said. “We run it through a priority list.”
Neither Hicks nor LaBonde responded to an email Tuesday asking for a priority list.
On Wednesday, LaBonde provided an “internal priority list” of five reservoir projects that puts the West Fork Reservoir last. In order, the projects are Middle Piney Reservoir, Big Sandy Reservoir Enlargement, Alkali Creek Reservoir, Leavitt Reservoir Expansion and the West Fork Reservoir.
“No other reservoirs are on the priority list because they have not completed the necessary planning studies to determine if there is a feasible project,” he wrote in an email.
The West Fork Dam, located in Hicks’s district, would cost more than the nearly $60 million in the water construction account today. Its approval would delay other state projects, critics say, because the construction account builds at a rate of less than $1 million a year.
The Water Development Office has 15 projects on its “current dam and reservoir projects” list. They are located in the Wind River/Bighorn, Powder River, Green River and Bear River basins. Not counting the West Fork dam and reservoir, they would collectively store 66,600 acre feet.
The water development office lists 54 projects on its Level I and II ongoing planning projects list, which includes municipal and agricultural proposals as well as watershed studies. They are located in every watershed across the state, from the Snake to the Bear, Green, Wind/Big Horn, Powder/Tongue, Platte and “Northeast.” The water office also lists 81 projects on its compendium of “all ongoing construction projects.”
Even with contributions from Colorado, the costs of the West Fork dam “are horrific,” Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) told fellow senators. “It will still cost more to irrigate that land than the land is worth,” he said. “That just strikes me as crazy.”
Hicks rallies support
Tuesday, Sen. Hicks rallied support for the conditional $10 million appropriation after he saw colleagues reject his call for $40 million partial funding on the Senate floor Monday. Debate in favor of construction this week included the claim that the U.S. would have lost WWII if it hadn’t built the Hoover Dam.
Some of the hyperbole fell short. “I don’t know exactly what skirmish this dam is going to win,” one solon said.
Reports about the project have been off-base, Hicks told colleagues. “If you do read the newspapers, you’re misinformed,” he said on the Senate floor. “It’s not an $80 million facility. It’s a $73 million reservoir.”
Although the West Fork legislation puts the project cost at $73 million, that’s not what the official estimates for construction say. According to the executive summary of the project’s final report.”The estimated capital cost of the project totals $73 million for an 8,500 acre-feet reservoir and $80 million for a 10,000 acre-feet reservoir.” The reservoir is planned at 10,000 acre feet.
But the earmark of 6,500 acre feet for irrigation may be temporary. Claiming beneficial use for agricultural purposes is “a holding maneuver,” Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) said, and Wyoming will likely use the water for other needs in the future. Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) agreed.
“The real values of our water are non-agriculture,” he said. “The likely future use… will be for people to drink.”
Despite Hicks’ assertion that the dam and reservoir had been studied sufficiently over a decade, senators voted to give the plan more time. “We don’t spend a dime more by passing this amendment,” Driskill said, noting the condition that the Legislature must again vote before any money is spent. “Let it live long enough to see if it is valuable.”
This story was updated March 7 to add Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry Labonde’s internal priority list. The water construction bill passed the Senate on March 7 on a 26-4 vote — Ed.