Uncertain how to fully fund an $80 million dam in southwest Wyoming, lawmakers Friday agreed the state should spend no money on construction before finalizing a financial package.
Among issues debated by the Legislature’s Select Water Committee are how and whether Colorado — which could accrue 25 percent of the project’s benefit — might participate in building the 280-foot-high dam and 10,000 acre-foot reservoir. Friday’s debate regarding a $82 million water-construction bill and an $11 million water-planning measure also saw legislators haggle over whether other lawmakers might raid a water account for different purposes.
Wyoming water developers seek $40 million in 2018 to continue planning and begin construction of a dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County. The proposed dam and reservoir would serve between 67 and 100 irrigators in the Little Snake River drainage. Irrigators would pay less than 10 percent of the cost, according to the funding request.
Although a quarter of the lands that would benefit from the dam are in another state, Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said he has had only conversations with counterparts in Colorado. He estimated that state’s obligation at $20 million or a fifth of the cost. Wyoming and Colorado so far have forged no cost-sharing agreement.
Lawmakers agreed to include the $40 million request in the funding bill to be considered by the entire Legislature on one condition: there can be no construction spending or commitments until funding for the entire project is identified. That would still allow money to be spent on land acquisition.
A state account for reservoir development has enough to cover the $40 million being requested, but not the balance.
“We do not currently have enough money in Account III to fully fund this project,” LaBonde told lawmakers. He would not speculate to WyoFile about where the balance would come from.
Constructing the reservoir would require securing 100 acres of federal property from the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. The dam also would inundate some of the 186 acres in the area owned by the American Milling company of East St. Louis. Carbon County property records list the market value of the mining inholding at $67,427.
Appropriating $40 million would launch permitting and land-acquisition, dam supporters say. Forest Service property could be acquired through purchase, exchange or congressional land transfer.
The Legislature should appropriate the $40 million to convince Colorado to share costs, LaBonde said. “We definitely want to show that Wyoming is sincere about moving this project forward,” he told the committee.
But lawmakers appeared nervous regarding the lack of commitment from the southern neighbor, especially given Wyoming’s fiscal crisis, stemming from a downturn in energy revenues.
“We all know the times we’re in and I do think it’s premature to tie 40 million bucks up,” Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devil’s Tower) said. He proposed to cut the commitment to only $3.7 million until Colorado chips in.
Driskill’s cut “kills the project,” argued Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs), who lives in the Little Snake River drainage. “This pretty much … says we’re really not serious about this project,” he said, that “we’re not going to pursue land acquisition.”
Without a $40 million earmark “there’s a big risk” the water development funds could be raided for use elsewhere in government, Hicks said. The appropriations committee did that last year to the tune of millions of dollars, he said.
Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange) agreed. “We do need to obligate that money, otherwise it’s dry powder for [Joint Appropriations Committee,]” he said. “They can reach in there anytime, if it’s not obligated, and take it out.”
Driskill, a member of the appropriations committee, pledged to support the $80-million project and stave off lawmakers if they try to loot the funds. “We’ll do our dangest,” Driskill said. But, “if that committee doesn’t like a project [that money is] allocated to, I can assure you [the money is] gone.”
Driskill’s amendment to cut the appropriation to $3.7 million failed on a voice vote that saw him and possibly one other committee member in support. Meier then sought to placate worries about future funding with a new condition.
He proposed a successful amendment that would prohibit committing to construction contracts before full funding is identified. Consequently, the $40 million item remains in the omnibus water construction bill that the Legislature will consider beginning Feb. 12.
Irrigators pleased with Gov. Mead’s dam building
Ranchers are giddy about the potential for additional irrigation water in the Little Snake River drainage, said Pat O’Toole, a former legislator whose family owns a ranch in the area. He praised Gov. Matt’ Mead’s 10-in-10 program that seeks to build 10 water storage projects in a decade.
There’s “incredible excitement Gov. Mead has put throughout the whole West about his program building reservoirs,” O’Toole told the committee. O’Toole is president of the Family Farm Alliance that represents irrigators in the 17 most western states.
“Think long-term on this,” he said. “Take the vision of those guys in the ’70s and ’80s that created the water development fund and go forward with this project.”
While some lawmakers complained that Wyoming has subsidized its southern neighbor’s water in the past, O’Toole said Wyoming owes Colorado water because of a diversion from the Little Snake River drainage that sent water to Cheyenne. “We can’t be antagonistic to Colorado,” he said. “We live together in our community and we’re really trying to work together.”
Driskill put Wyoming first. “Our job at this table is not to right what happened on the last project, it’s to make sure Wyoming is fully protected,” he said. The entire project shouldn’t even be at the construction-funding stage, he said, but rather at the planning level. “One of Colorado’s people oughta be sitting at the table where you’re at, Mr. O’Toole, and talking to us and saying this is important to Colorado,” Driskill said.
Even if Wyoming doesn’t build the dam, procuring the land would benefit the state, Hicks said. Colorado and Wyoming’s congressional delegations should seek federal infrastructure money for the project, he said. Further, Hicks told Wyofile in an interview, the entire project was launched with a new paradigm in mind. It would not be a win-lose proposition pitting irrigators against conservationists. Instead, the project would result in a net conservation gain and serve as a model.
Estimated public benefits allow grant to irrigators
Such conservation gains boost the estimated public benefits of the project. Those benefits — from flatwater recreation and camping, to improved downstream river fisheries, increased economic activity and other items — amount to $73.7 million, a study says. That qualifies the project for about $73 million in Wyoming grant money and a less than 10 percent commitment from irrigators. Water projects typically require a 33 percent cost share from irrigators or, in cases of “severe financial hardship,” only 25 percent.
In an interview Hicks touted restoration of waterways from copper mining pollution as some of the benefits. Imperiled Colorado River cutthroat also would benefit from construction of the reservoir, he said. The new dam and reservoir also would allow releases from High Savery Reservoir to be altered to benefit trout, he said.
One former water development commissioner and legislator, Jeb Steward, has called the project “pork” and said it should not be funded. He contends the dam would resolve what’s only a 2 to 3 percent irrigation shortage, amounting to about a week’s worth of water a year. The 100-acre reservoir in the Sierra Madre Mountains south of Rawlins would supply water to only 2,000 acres in Wyoming that don’t currently benefit from the nearby High Savery Dam, he said.
The new Battle Creek dam would store more than could be used by irrigators today, a report said. New pastures would have to be created to take full advantage of the reservoir.