NRCS eyes $20M for embattled dam as public demands answers — @WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A member of the public poses a question during a public meeting in Saratoga Jan. 12, 2023 regarding the proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. and  Dustin Bleizeffer):

The U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service will likely request some $20 million for the West Fork Dam on the Colorado border, a potential new funding source for the contested project

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service will likely request funding “in the over-$20-million range” to help finance a controversial dam proposed for the Little Snake River drainage, a federal official said last week.

The revelation emerged from a long-awaited series of public meetings in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga during which project critics and proponents interrogated state and federal agency representatives and argued the merits of the West Fork Dam initiative. 

Estimated in 2017 to cost $80 million, the 260-foot-high concrete structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir in Carbon County near the confluence of Battle and Haggarty Creeks has become the latest skirmish line in the West’s interminable water wars.

Water developers and many in the local agricultural community hail the public work as a critical tool for mitigating the effects of deepening drought and a boon for wildlife, recreation and the local economy. Opponents describe it as an expensive boondoggle poised to benefit a small number of irrigators — many of whom aren’t even in Wyoming — while shifting negative environmental impacts downstream.  

Following years of quiet agency maneuvering, legislative negotiating and campaigning from both sides, a framework for the potential deal has taken shape. It involves a state-federal land swap, complex “public benefit” calculations, a streamlined environmental review, majority funding from the state of Wyoming, minority contributions from water-users and now, apparently, a potentially skid-greasing influx of federal dollars. 

The NRCS’s funding interest was “some new info,” according to a participant at one of last week’s public meetings.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service will request funding if it and other agencies approve construction, said Shawn Follum, state conservation engineer with the NRCS in Casper. 

Funds aren’t guaranteed, he said; “We can’t commit Congress’ dollars in the future.” But the money could qualify as the required contribution from the Pothook Water Conservancy District of about two dozen irrigators in Colorado, according to discussions at the public meetings.

Wyoming may still face challenges funding the dam if federal officials approve it. In an unprecedented move in 2018, state legislators cut some $35 million from a water-construction bill and required lawmaker approval for any new funds for the West Fork Dam.

In an era of infrastructure and stimulus funding, however, more federal money might be available. “The reality is there are a variety of places where to find this … funding,” rancher Pat O’Toole, a project proponent and former state lawmaker, said.

Funding, however, is only one of many variables that need to be solved for if the complex public works proposal is to come to fruition. The terms of a land swap and parallel environmental review are also top of mind for stakeholders, as is an evaluation of who actually stands to benefit from the undertaking.  

‘Somewhat befuddled’

Held over three evenings, the meetings drew about 150 people to hear how the NRCS and Medicine Bow National Forest might authorize the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek.

In what’s being called a “parallel process” The Medicine-Bow will decide whether to exchange land to enable the 130-acre reservoir that would hold 10,000 acre-feet, mostly for late-season irrigation. About 44 irrigators have expressed interest in buying the water, according to discussion at the meetings.

Pat O’Toole, who ranches in the Baggs area, was among participants at the Saratoga public meeting on the West Fork Dam on Jan. 12, 2023. Approximately 150 persons attended three sessions — also held in Baggs and Craig, Colorado — explaining how the Medicine Bow National Forest and U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service will decide whether to authorize a 264-foot concrete structure. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Participants called the bifurcated approvals confusing and criticized the process that, according to Wyoming officials, is designed to skirt more lengthy federal environmental reviews.

“A lot of questions are coming from people who deal with this [National Environmental Policy Act] process a lot and they’re somewhat befuddled,” said Jeb Steward an Encampment resident, former state representative and a former member of the Wyoming Water Development Commission who has worked as a water rights consultant in the area.

Meeting participant Soren Jespersen said officials had created a “very confusing process, and it’s difficult … for the public to know when and how to weigh in.”

Cindy McKee, a rancher who irrigates from a stream above the proposed dam, and grazes cattle on state land that’s offered in the swap, echoed those concerns. “We’ve been very disappointed in the lack of communication from the state, as singularly affected as we are both by the land trade and by the proposed water project,” she said. “We were never notified that our [grazing] lease was up for consideration for the land trade. Fourteen years ago when the dam was conceived, we didn’t know about it for two years.

“It’s been difficult, quite honestly, to find information,” McKee said. “Documents are usually released very shortly before an opportunity to public comment. It’s been frustrating and discouraging.”

Comments and public interest

Federal and state officials stressed that comments about the review’s scopeshould be made in writing to the NRCS by Feb. 13. Only persons and organizations that comment can later object to any decision.

An NRCS draft environmental impact statement is expected in September with a final version released in April 2024 and adoption scheduled for that May.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Plans for 264-foot dam above #LittleSnakeRiver spur conflict — WyoFile #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The upper reaches of Haggarty Creek on the Medicine Bow National Forest. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer):

Above the Colorado-Wyoming border, the Sierra Madre Mountain snowpack holds water that ranchers say flows downstream too fast. Some question whether a proposed 10,000-acre-foot reservoir is pork or progress.

As officials this week outline plans for a 264-foot-high concrete dam proposed for a wooded canyon in the Medicine Bow National Forest, irrigators and critics remain divided over the project’s benefits and impacts. The two sides disagree whether the estimated $80-million structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir are pork or progress, boon or bane.

Federal officials begin receiving public comments on the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County as ranchers and environmentalists disagree over whether 450,000 cubic yards of concrete should plug a forested gorge and whether federal and state agencies are conducting environmental examinations appropriately. In what one official admitted is a complex process with parallel reviews, two federal agencies will make key findings to resolve the project’s fate.

The federal Natural Resource Conservation Service will examine dam construction and alternatives in an environmental impact statement. Meantime, the U.S. Forest Service will launch a separate “feasibility study” to decide whether it should take part in an estimated 6,282-acre land exchange facilitating construction of the dam. The study will determine whether trading the federal dam site to Wyomining “is in the best interest of the American public,” Medicine Bow spokesman Aaron Voos said.

Proponents want the dam and reservoir to yield 6,500 acre-feet of late-season irrigation for between 67-100 irrigators in Wyoming and Colorado. The 10,000 acre-foot impoundment would hold 1,500 acre-feet as a minimum bypass flow for fish and wildlife. The state would pay for most of the estimated $80 million cost, a figure calculated in 2017.

“We would like to have a project here because it’s good for our valley,” said Pat O’Toole, a former state representative who ranches along the Little Snake River. “The public interest is clearly that the storage project [aids] biodiversity” and boosts food production while creating “a really healthy landscape.”

[…]

The land exchange is an end-run around environmental reviews, he said, an assertion dam supporters and review agencies reject. [Gary] Wockner is worried that Medicine Bow officials won’t apply the same scrutiny to the land exchange that they would to the construction of a dam on National Forest property, he said. Building on federal land would require a more extensive review, he said, echoing dam backers’ own public statements.

Medicine Bow spokesman Voos rejected the assertion his agency is shirking its responsibilities. It is speculation to assert what level of review a proposal to build the dam on federal property would require, he said.

Wyoming agrees the process is sound. “It wouldn’t limit the environmental review at all,” Jason Crowder, deputy director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, told WyoFile.

In addition to its public-interest swap determination, the Medicine Bow is participating in a separate environmental impact review and statement — conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service — that will consider environmental and social impacts of dam and reservoir construction and operation. All that “satisfies the environmental review requirements for the land exchange,” Voos said.

Dwindling basin flows

At the upper reaches of the Colorado River Basin, where dwindling flows put seven Western states and Mexico at odds over historic and future use, the project comes at an uneasy time. It will test Wyoming’s willingness to impound and use what it believes river laws allow, despite an arid landscape of dwindling Colorado River flows, oversubscribed demands, climate change and growth.

Federal regulations state that a land exchange can take place only if the public interest “will be well served.”

One benefit to the Medicine Bow could be acquiring 640 acres of state-owned school-trust sections inside the national forest. “Quite a few of them are either in or adjacent to [a] wilderness area or roadless areas,” said Jonathan Bowler, watermaster for the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District.

Little Snake River agricultural lands along the Colorado-Wyoming border. Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“The public could potentially see an expansion of roadless and wilderness in those areas,” he said.

The reservoir itself would flood land within about a half mile of the boundary of the Medicine Bow’s 31,057-acre Huston Park Wilderness Area, according to maps.

Bowler outlined other ways existing irrigation aids the environment; the dam would expand those benefits.

“You’ve got hundreds of ranchers pretty much doing the work of beavers to build riparian areas and habitat,” he said. Such irrigation-induced wetlands today cover more than 7,000 acres in the area, he said.

Birds and water at Bosque de Apache New Mexico November 9, 2022. Photo credit: Abby Burk

Irrigation aids amphibians and species like sandhill cranes that migrate to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, he said. “Our irrigation actually directly benefits that mating grounds down there that’s quite a tourist attraction.” Elk and other wildlife benefit from the open private land, he said.

Irrigation “basically fills up the soil … the largest reservoir that we have,” he said. When that moisture starts coming back out to the river, “that means that our rivers are higher [in] flow [in] late summer, early fall than historically they were.”

Wyoming calculates those returning flows — about 45% of what’s diverted onto fields — as water that can be used for irrigation again and counted as a benefit, according to a Water Development Office study.

“That late-season irrigation especially can help cool down river temperatures, which helps to provide for those big game populations as well as fish and other wildlife,” Bowler said.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

The dam also could benefit Colorado River cutthroat trout because it would be an upstream barrier to competitors, helping fisheries managers enlarge a sanctuary for the species in and above the reservoir.

Said O’Toole, “this is may be as conservation-minded a place I know of in the western United States.”

Environmental review

…Wyoming wants 1,700 acres of Forest Service land for the dam and would analyze the value of between 2,024 and 4,400 acres of Wyoming school-trust land inside the Medicine Bow for the trade. Public announcements differ over the state acreage to be considered for trade.

The valley in which the West Fork dam and reservoir would be constructed. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

State and federal officials agree a land swap would make approval of the 130-acre reservoir easier. Wyoming’s exchange request states that a land swap “would eliminate the need for a USFS special use permit.”

Federal land ownership of the dam site “adds millions of dollars to that [permitting] process,” Harry LaBonde, former director of the WWDO told lawmakers in 2018. “Dealing with the Forest Service … very much complicates the NEPA process,” he said, and an exchange “very much streamlines” potential development.

Dam proponents “were running into a bit of a roadblock with Forest Service on Forest-Service-managed land,” OSLI Deputy Director Crowder told the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners in 2021.

The Medicine Bow told Wyoming officials that building on federal, not state, land “would not be the best approach just due to all the regulations that would come along with a [required] special use permit,” Voos said in an interview. “And so I think that [land swap] has been our suggestion.”

The value of exchanged parcels can be balanced by adjusting the acreage or paying for a difference, according to Wyoming’s proposal.

Any increase in federal acreage — the state offered 4,400 acres for analysis and potential trade for 1,700 acres of Medicine Bow land — could run afoul of Carbon County’s Natural Resource Management Plan. That plan supports valuable exchanges but also calls for “no net loss of private or state lands in exchange for federal lands.”

Gov. Mark Gordon, too, “is not supportive of the federal government expanding their [sic] estate in Wyoming,” Gordon’s spokesman Michael Pearlman told WyoFile when the governor protested the 35,670-acre conservation purchase of the private Marton Ranch along the North Platte River last year.

Of the 1,700 acres of Medicine Bow property Wyoming would acquire, the state wants 1,336 acres for the dam and reservoir itself and another 426 acres covering parts of Haggarty Creek and the Belvidere Ditch, site of a water spatamong area irrigators.

Owning all the property would “provide for the efficient operation of the reservoir and surrounding lands,” the state said in its land-swap proposal.

The state would lease the newly acquired land to the Water Development Commission, which would eventually transfer ownership to Carbon County or some other entity, according to plans. That final owner would be responsible for compensating the school trust — whose land the state would trade away.

A mining company that owns land at the reservoir site also would be involved with the project. American Milling LP of Cahokia, Illinois owns about 124 acres inside the national forest at the proposed site of the reservoir. The Carbon County assessor lists the market value of the property, site of mineral claims, at $40,675. Wyoming would presumably have to acquire that property too, or somehow arrange for it to be flooded.

WyoFile did not receive a response to a certified letter sent to the company seeking comment on Wyoming’s plans to inundate the private land.

Equal values

The Forest Service must show that values and public objectives of the state parcels “equal or exceed” those that would be swapped, regulations state. Medicine Bow land that would become the dam site must “not substantially conflict with established management objectives on adjacent Federal lands,” the Forest Service said.

Medicine Bow officials last week couldn’t immediately outline those objectives.

A WWDO study, however, listed the benefits of a new dam, saying it would generate $73.7 million in public benefits. Reservoir releases would be coordinated with those from the High Savery Dam.

A fish barrier on Haggarty Creek provides an upstream sanctuary for Colorado River cutthroat trout. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Critics have questioned the accounting of benefits, including rosy projections for recreational revenue and the acreage that would benefit from irrigation.

The cost/benefit ratio allows the state to reduce the required contributions from irrigation districts from the typical 33% to 8% of construction costs.

Wyoming, however, has seen costs for dam construction increase dramatically in recent years, potentially upsetting the cost/benefit ratio. The environmental review will update those figures, Jason Mead, interim director of the WWDO, wrote in an email.

Construction would require an estimated 450,000 cubic yards of concrete, according to an application to appropriate water filed with the state engineer in 2014. The Forest Service public-interest determination and separate NRCS environmental impact statement seek to examine the construction plan through two separate reviews.

A 70-step process 

The parallel review process is complex, Voos said. The Medicine Bow is engaged with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a larger analysis of the dam’s environmental and social impact. Other state and federal agencies also are involved.

The separate Forest Service public-interest decision is entwined in that process, both to be explained at public meetings in the region on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The public-interest determination, “that’s kind of a parallel process to the land exchange,” Voos said. “We are piggybacking in essence, on those public meetings,” to get comments on the swap.

“We have a full, almost … 70-step process that we have to go through for the land exchange,” Voos said. Reservoir construction on National Forest System lands “is not commonplace,” the Medicine Bow said in a statement.

After determining the public-interest benefit, “we proceed or don’t proceed with the rest of the land exchange process,” Voos said. The Forest Service is “not for or against the project.”

[…]

Interested parties can read a legal notice published by the NRCS or weigh in online, by post or hand-delivery. The comments go to the NRCS, which will forward relevant land-swap ones to the Forest Service, Voos said. Meetingsoutlining the scope of the analysis and potential alternatives will be held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Craig, Colorado, and Baggs and Saratoga respectively.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Feds set deadline (February 13, 2023) for West Fork Dam comments — @WyoFile #LitteSnakeRiver #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water developers want to construct a 264-foot high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek south of Rawlins. This artist’s conception shows in a Google Earth rendition what the reservoir would look like. (Wyoming Water Development Office)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Federal authorities have set a Feb. 13 deadline for comments on a proposal to build a 264-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Carbon County.

The proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir would impound 6,500 acre-feet of irrigation storage in the Little Snake River Valley and parts of Colorado. Another 1,500 acre-feet would maintain a “minimum bypass flow” into Battle Creek and the Little Snake, Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers downstream.

Officials announced the deadline in the Federal Register on Dec. 28 where they said they would accept written comments for 45 days. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has scheduled three public meetings Jan. 10-12 in communities in the impacted region.

The meetings are not designed as forums at which officials will accept public comment, Aaron Voos, a spokesman for the Medicine Bow said. Officials will use them to explain plans for construction of the proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir and the parallel Forest Service examination of a land exchange that would enable the project. 

Why it matters

The dam would cost some $80 million, according to a 2017 estimate, and the state would pay $73.6 million of that, original plans state. The dam and reservoir would generate an estimated $73.3 million in public benefits such as recreation and fishing, according to developers. Those benefits allow the state to reduce the amount irrigators would have to contribute, according to documents outlining the plan.

The proposal to impound more water in the Colorado River Basin and extract it from waterways for “increased pasture and hay production” comes at a time when seven Western states and Mexico are at odds over who can use what water in the overtaxed system. Even though officials are struggling to maintain water levels in Lake Powell, Wyoming believes it has the right to construct the reservoir and use flows from the basin’s network of waterways.

 Who said what:

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will prepare an environmental impact statement analyzing six alternatives, including no-action and an option that would use “alternate means such as … water conservation projects and habitat improvement projects” to achieve watershed-plan goals.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

#Wyoming seeks 6,282-acre land swap for new #ColoradoRiver Basin dam — WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification

This map depicts the properties to be exchanged. (Office of State Lands and Investments)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Wyoming moved to expedite the construction of a 280-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest last month by proposing a 6,282-acre land exchange.

The state wants 1,762 acres of federal property for a dam and reservoir on the West Fork of Battle Creek in the Sierra Madre Mountains, according to a Nov. 30 letter and map from Jenifer Scoggin, the director of Wyoming’s Office of State Lands and Investments. In exchange, Wyoming would transfer ownership of up to 4,520 acres of state school trust lands to the federal government. That school trust land lies inside the boundaries of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

The Medicine-Bow announced the application in a press release setting three public meetings that will be held on the evenings of Jan. 10, 11 and 12 in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga respectively. The dam would be built on a tributary of the Little Snake River that flows into the Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers.

“Conveying this parcel out of Federal ownership would eliminate the need for a USFS special use permit for the reservoir as well as provide for efficient management of the reservoir and surrounding lands,” states the 19-page notice of intent and proposal, which Scoggin sent to Brush Creek/Hayden District Ranger Jason Armbruster in Saratoga. Wyoming needs the federal property to construct the reservoir and meet “fiduciary obligations to produce income to support public schools and other state institutions,” the letter reads.

WyoFile obtained a copy of Scoggin’s letter, the proposal and map Tuesday from deputy director Jason Crowder.

The state Board of Land Commissioners last summer conceptually approved investigating a land exchange that would have covered some 24,000 acres. That approval allowed state officials to offer a smaller exchange in an effort to accelerate the West Fork Dam and reservoir project, Crowder said.

Smaller would be faster

“[T]he reality of getting something like that [larger exchange] done isn’t all that hot,” Crowder said. The Forest Service would have to examine a larger exchange through the National Environmental Policy Act process, which would take considerably longer than what’s being proposed, he said.

“Something that large isn’t anything that could get done in a timely fashion,” Crowder said. “It’s probable that a larger exchange … wouldn’t be feasible or successful in the near term.”

Instead, an exchange “that was more narrowly focused [on the land] needed for the reservoir construction and implementation would be OK,” he said.

Instead of writing an environmental impact statement that’s common for major proposals under NEPA, the Forest Service will instead conduct a “feasibility analysis/study,” Medicine Bow officials said in a statement. “The resulting product is referred to as a Public Interest Determination,” that would approve or reject the exchange, the Forest Service news release states.

The Forest Service study will focus on the future use and management of the lands and the effect of the exchange on the lands that adjoin them, the Medicine Bow release said.

Estimated in 2017 to cost $80 million, the proposed West Fork Reservoir would serve 67 to 100 irrigators. A 130-acre reservoir would hold 10,000 acre feet of water primarily for irrigation. The project is sponsored by: Savery-Little Snake Conservancy District and Pothook Conservancy in Colorado, the Forest Service said.

The proposed reservoir would impound and divert water from the troubled Colorado River Basin where residents in seven states and Mexico are at odds over how to use dwindling flows.

“It is important to note that the Forest Service has not yet determined if this is a feasible exchange, nor has the agency agreed to initiate it,” the Medicine Bow statement reads.

The Jan. 10 meeting in Craig will be from 5-7 p.m. at Colorado Northwest Community College. A virtual option will be available through the Forest Service website.

The meeting Jan. 11 in Baggs will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Valley Community Center. The Saratoga meeting the following day will be from 5:30-7:30 at the Platte Valley Community Center.Land exchange proposal details will be available the week of the public meetings on the Forest’s project website, the Medicine Bow announcement stated.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Municipal water among most vulnerable in #ColoradoRiver crisis — WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Lincoln Highway in Cheyenne, Feb. 16, 2013. (Kent Kanouse/FlickrCC)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

When Cheyenne’s municipal water board approved a deal in October to supply up to 14,500 acre-feet of water over 15 years for a proposed gold mine west of town, attorneys insisted on inserting a clause in the contract. It retained the right to cut water deliveries if the city itself has to curtail its water use due to the Colorado River crisis.

“The majority of our water comes from the Colorado River [basin] and if that call [requiring upstream users to cut consumption] comes in, we’re in big trouble,” Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins said.

About 70% of the city’s municipal water supply originates 150 miles west in the Little Snake River drainage, a part of the Colorado River Basin. A complex “trans-basin” system of pumps, tunnels and pipelines transports the water under the Continental Divide in the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest to the city. 

Cheyenne’s legal claims to the Colorado River Basin water were appropriated from 1954 to 1982 — making it a relatively new user in the system. If there is a curtailment, it would be applied to the newest or most “junior” appropriations, then work back in time to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means, depending on how far back in time a curtailment extends, 70% of the city’s water supply could be shut off — an action that could come as soon as 2028 if hydrological conditions keep trending for the worse, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office.

This map depicts Cheyenne’s municipal water supply system, which funnels in water from the Little Snake River Basin. (Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities)

“If we lose 100% of our Colorado River Compact water, we’re upside down,” Collins said, adding that about 80,000 people rely on the city’s municipal water system. “We wouldn’t have enough water to meet our current needs.”

For now, Cheyenne, Baggs, Rock Springs, Green River, Pinedale and a handful of other towns that depend on water from the Little Snake and Green River basins in Wyoming are assessing where they stand in the pecking order of appropriated water rights in the event of a curtailment. Although municipalities make up a small percentage of Wyoming water users under the Colorado River Compact and associated laws, their legal claims to the water are among the most vulnerable.

First in time, first in right

If the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission issues a curtailment for Wyoming, it would not necessarily force all water users subject to the compact to close their spigots completely.

There’s no curtailment priority in terms of use — whether it’s irrigation for cattle and alfalfa fields, water consumed for cooling at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant or water piped to homes for domestic use. Instead, a curtailment would be applied based on the first-in-time, first-in-right water appropriations doctrine: Those who gained their water appropriation latest in time would be the first ordered to shut off their water.

For example, if the state had to curtail 100,000 acre-feet of water — approximately one-sixth of its annual Colorado River Basin consumptive water use — the state engineer would begin with the newest appropriations and work back in time until the 100,000 acre-feet of consumptive water use curtailment was met.

Shauna Gray and her dog, Lula Mae, paddle at Rob Roy Reservoir July 31, 2022. The reservoir is part of a trans-basin water system that supplies water to Cheyenne. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

If, let’s say, that required turning off all Colorado River Basin water appropriations back to 1970, that would choke off all water appropriated since then — whether for industrial, municipal or agricultural use. The cities of Rock Springs and Green River, which share a municipal water system that serves some 39,000 residents, would lose access to 75% of their Green River water appropriation. The towns would still be allowed to tap the 4,343-acre-feet-per-year appropriation they secured in 1928 and the 2,895-acre-feet-per-year appropriation that predates the 1922 compact. The rest — 75% — was appropriated in 1971 and after.

This type of variable vulnerability applies to many Colorado River Basin water users with appropriated rights that were obtained at different times. The exact order for how a curtailment would be applied is well documented and under continual review, according to the state engineer’s office.

Small straw, big vulnerability

Agriculture accounts for 83.7% of Wyoming’s consumptive use of water in the Colorado River system, according to the SEO. Municipal water use accounts for about 2.8% — or 3.3% if you include rural domestic water use. Industry — trona facilities, coal power plants, oil and natural gas processing — make up most of the remaining 13%.

Approximately 70% of agricultural irrigation water rights in Wyoming were appropriated before 1922. Those pre-1922 appropriations are not subject to the Colorado River Compact and cannot be shut off under a curtailment. The pre-1922 protection applies to all Colorado River Basin water users.

A majority of Colorado River Basin water appropriations held by Wyoming municipal water authorities, however, are post-1922. That means some 125,000 urban Wyoming residents and businesses are vulnerable to a curtailment.

Given the curtailment clause in Cheyenne’s water contract, gold mine developer Gold King Corp. is shopping around to secure alternative water resources, according to Mayor Collins. The city of Cheyenne — as well as Green River, Rock Springs and others — are doing the same.

“There is the possibility that we would not be able to collect any water from the Little Snake System if [a] curtailment call goes below 1954,” Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities Administrator Brad Brooks told WyoFile. “We are looking for additional water to mitigate this possibility and planning for the worst case that our Little Snake water will not be available.”

Green River and Rock Springs are in the same boat. Their joint municipal water system collects 100% of its water from the Green River and its tributaries to serve some 39,000 residents in and around the two cities. Only 10% of their Colorado River Basin water appropriations pre-date the 1922 compact.

Green River. (Google Earth)

Although the cities don’t rely on the full volume of their legal claims to Colorado River Basin water, the time to plan for supplemental water sources is now; 2028, the year Wyoming might first see a curtailment, isn’t far away, Green River/Rock Springs Joint Powers Board General Manager Bryan Seppie said.

“Understand, [a curtailment] probably isn’t a one-year event,” Seppie told WyoFile, adding that much depends on what Mother Nature has in store. “We’ve got to secure other water resources to serve as replacement water if [a curtailment] were to happen. Conservation is a tool, but with these types of curtailments, conservation is not going to get you out of it.”

Backup water

Part of the Gold King deal provides Cheyenne’s Board of Public Utilities approximately $5 million in fees that would help cover the cost to expand Cheyenne’s groundwater capacity. The city’s water board is also seeking up to $10.5 million in grants from the Wyoming Water Development Commission for its Borie wellfield expansion project. The expansion would add approximately 3,300 acre-feet of water per year to the city’s water portfolio, according to the board. 

That would boost Cheyenne’s non-Colorado River Compact water source portfolio to 9,900 acre-feet per year. But the city would still be in trouble in the event of a curtailment because its average annual use is about 14,000 acre-feet.

“We are actively pursuing possibilities” for additional water resources, Brooks of the city’s BOPU said.

Anglers try their luck on the Green River at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge on Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Expanding groundwater capacity, however, isn’t an affordable option for Rock Springs and Green River, according to Seppie. Instead, the cities are looking to those in the state with pre-1922 appropriations to share some water.

The federal System Conservation Program pays water users to curb consumption. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.

The SCP is an attractive option, Seppie said, for both ag irrigators and municipalities. Ag irrigators who volunteer for the program can use payments to upgrade their irrigation systems to waste less water.

“It’s a voluntary thing. It’s preemptive, and it’s benefiting the entire system,” Seppie said. “We haven’t gotten to a point where we’re having those discussions [with city officials]. But we have somewhat of a timeframe; 2028 is not all that far off.”

State of #YampaRiver: Current low #snowpack is similar to other dry years; rain will be key: Amount of water in the Yampa Valley’s snowpack may have already peaked — The #Craig Press #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado snowpack sub-basin filled map March 29, 2022 via the NRCS.

Click the link to read the article on the Craig Press website (Dylan Anderson):

The amount of water in the snowpack blanketing the Yampa River Basin started declining on Friday, March 25, potentially marking the earliest peak since 2017…Erin Light, engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has put the river under administration three of the last four years. At the Colorado River District’s State of the Yampa River event last week, she said 2022, so far, is tracking in line with other dry years over the last two decades.

This year’s snowpack is rivaling that of 2002 and 2012 — two of the driest years during the current 22-year drought that is the worst ever recorded, Light said…Snowpack is important, but precipitation in the spring and late summer is also a key metric, and it seems harder to come by…

The Yampa is one of most free flowing rivers in Colorado. Of the five main reservoirs feeding into the Yampa, Light estimated that at least two and maybe three of them won’t fill up this year. Stillwater Reservoir is the farthest upstream and was sitting at about 310 acre-feet when it was last measured in October. Light said there was water released last year for both agricultural purposes and for work on the dam. Farther downstream, Yamcolo Reservoir was about 45% full, and Stagecoach reservoir was 75% full as of late last week. Two reservoirs in the basin — Fish Creek Reservoir on Buffalo Pass, where Steamboat Springs gets much of its water, and Elkhead Reservoir near the Routt and Moffat county line — are both likely to fill, Light said.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 29, 2022 via the NRCS.

#YampaRiver basin experts see winter #drought indicators continue — The #Craig Press #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on The Craig Press (Eliza Noe). Here’s an excerpt:

As industries across the Western Slope continue to watch snow and water levels as the days until summer close in, the Colorado River District hosted water experts Tuesday to discuss what certain data points mean and how they reflect the current state of Colorado’s water levels…

Before Monday, snow in 2022 had been sparse for the northwest corner of the state. According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the White and Yampa River Basin is currently at 86% of the median snowpack level since 1991. To get this median, the NRCS takes all of the snow patterns over the past 30 years and finds the middle of all of the peaks and snowpack levels. This median is often used as a standard to measure how dry a year is…

This winter, snow water equivalent (SWE) levels for the White-Yampa Basin are currently at 13.4 inches as of Tuesday (the latest available data). SWE is a commonly used measurement used by hydrologists and water managers to gauge the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack. In other words, it is the amount of water that will be released from the snowpack when it melts.

The SWE median for that same date is 15.5 inches, and this year is slightly behind last winter’s levels, which was at 14.4 inches. The median peak of these levels (meaning the highest amount of SWE levels before they dip) usually happens around April 8. During the most recent drought, this peak has happened earlier in the year, and it sometimes does not reach that average peak, either. In 2021, the peak of snowpack happened during the last week of March, topping at 18 inches. The median peak is 23.1 inches…

“One thing to keep in mind is that the percentage of normal numbers based on the SNOTEL network and snow course measurements are used for runoff prediction,” [Jeffrey] Deems said. “They are not a SWE volume measure. And so they’re used in a statistical forecasting method by the NRCS to project April through July runoff.”

A stock pond that is normally full of water stands dry because of drought on the Little Bear Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colo., on Aug. 11, 2021. Due to low snowpack, warming temperatures and dry soil during the past two years, followed by the same in 2021, Northwest Colorado is in a severe drought. Credit: Dean Krakel, special to Fresh Water News.

[…]

Across the entire western part of the United States, the trend of a multi-decadal drought is continuing. Gov. Jared Polis visited Craig last summer to speak with local ranchers about the drought’s impact on the Yampa Valley. Currently, agriculture workers in different facets of the industry are looking to see if 2022 might provide some relief.

West Drought Monitor map February 22, 2022.

The #YampaRiver is ‘over-appropriated’: There isn’t enough water for everyone who wants it — #Colorado Public Radio #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River
Integrated Water Management Plan website

Here’s the memorandum from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Kevin Rein):

Background

On March 17, 2021, Erin Light submitted a letter request to me on the subject of Designation of the Yampa River as Over-Appropriated (“Report”). The Report contains climate, hydrologic, and administrative call information to support a description of the Yampa River and its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River as over- appropriated and requests that I make a formal determination that the Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) designate that reach of the river and its tributaries as over-appropriated and treat them accordingly for the purposes of administration. For the purposes of the DWR’s administration and well permitting decisions, a stream is considered over-appropriated when “at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of said stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system”1 (“Over-Appropriated”). The Report is comprehensive and shows that the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River is Over-Appropriated. The Report is available for review at this link.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Designation

Based on my review of the Report, I have determined that, effective March 1, 2022, the reach of the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River, including all of its tributaries, as more clearly shown on Attachment A (“Affected Area”), is Over-Appropriated. My determination (”Designation”) recognizes the climate, hydrologic, and administrative call conditions that are now present on the Yampa River for the Affected Area. The Designation does not impact the legal ability to appropriate water from the Yampa River nor does it change administration of surface water rights on the Yampa River.

The purpose of the Designation is to provide the formal basis for DWR to consider the injurious impacts of wells during DWR’s evaluation of new applications for well permits.

Evaluation of Well Permit Applications

For applications for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.

Beginning March 1, 2022, DWR staff will treat the Affected Area as Over-Appropriated for the purpose of evaluating applications, filed on or after March 1, 2022, for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.

For applications to permit existing wells, where the well and its uses existed prior to March 1, 2022.

To allow a reasonable period of time for the owners of existing wells to obtain a well permit, for wells where the well owner can demonstrate that the well and its uses existed prior to this Designation date of March 1, 2022, DWR will accept applications to permit those existing wells and evaluate the applications without treating their impacts as injurious through December 31, 2022. Such wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere. For applications for such existing wells filed on or after January 1, 2023, DWR staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells for the purpose of evaluating the applications.

For these two categories of well permit applications, effective on the dates shown above, DWR staff will presume that the well will materially injure the vested water rights of others and the well permit application must be denied unless the well qualifies for a statutory presumption of no injury or other provision in statute, alone or in combination with State Engineer Policy and/or Guideline, or the well permit applicant has obtained a plan for augmentation decreed by the water court or a substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer.

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, points out how snowmelt flows from high elevation down to the valley where the water is used for irrigation. Hummer said most water users in the Yampa are complying with a state order issued nearly a year ago that requires measuring devices. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

A growing demand for a shrinking water supply in northwest Colorado has led state water officials to officially declare most of the Yampa River as over-appropriated. The designation is a formal recognition there’s no longer enough water for everyone who wants it. That triggers changes in how the state will grant permits for new wells in the area.

Smaller sections of the upper Yampa and some of its tributaries have already been deemed over-appropriated, including the upper Yampa River when increased development in Steamboat Springs put more demand on the river. But as climate change and extended periods of drought continue to dry up the West, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein said it was necessary to expand the designation to the lower part of the river, too.

A map of the new and existing areas along the Yampa River considered as over-appropriated. Courtesy of the Colorado Division of Water Resources

The declaration will change how permits for groundwater wells are approved but doesn’t affect how the water that flows on the surface of the Yampa River and its tributaries is managed and used, Rein said…

Augmentation plans are obtained through water court, a process Rein said can be difficult for individuals to navigate. Rein said the Great Northern Water Conservancy District plans to create a blanket augmentation plan that water users could sign up for, like the Upper Yampa River Conservancy District has done in recent years.

The decline in the Yampa River’s flows has also prompted the state to now require water users in the area to measure how much water they use, as decades of climate change-fueled drought have diminished supplies on the Western Slope.

Dry soil last fall, low snow this winter adds stress to the #YampaRiver Valley #water supply — #SteamboatSprings Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado Drought Monitor March 23, 2021.

From Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

One of the wetter spots in Colorado, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, is east over the mountains from Steamboat Springs in Larimer County.

Much of that county is in the lowest level of drought, called “abnormally dry,” thanks in part to historic snowfalls on the Front Range earlier this month. If Larimer County is dry, the trek west to Routt County — through part of the state that saw several record wildfires in 2020 — might test which drought-related adjectives apply.

The drought monitor goes with “extreme” and “exceptional” to describe drought conditions in Routt County. Most of the Western Slope is looking at a similar situation, with the western third of Colorado being shades of ruby red and maroon on the latest map released by drought officials last Thursday.

After having a call put on it for the second time in three years in 2020, state water officials are now considering whether the Yampa River has enough water to fulfill rights held by people downstream of Steamboat Springs. What is most concerning to officials isn’t just the low amount of snow seen this winter, but also how dry the ground was before it started falling.

Yampa, White, and Little Snake River basins snowpack March 29, 2021 via the NRCS.

In the Yampa and White River Basins in Northwest Colorado, the snowpack is about 87% of average in terms of snow water equivalent, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, but there isn’t much snow forecasted for the next few weeks, and the average peak in the snowpack generally comes around April 10…

Rain is key at maintaining soil moisture, Romero-Heaney said. Because the soil was so dry last fall, she anticipates a lot of the melting snow will be soaked up and water runoff will be lower than normal.

This means stream flows will be lower, likely requiring release of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to support the health of the Yampa River later in the season. Romero-Heaney said more often then not, since 2013, they have needed to release water into the Yampa.

If enough of that spring and summer rain does not come, Romero-Heaney said the valley could see a summer much like the last, and “we start to run out of water for all the uses in the basin.”

Municipal customers running out of water is not a concern at this point. Whether there will be enough water for all the agricultural uses in the basin while also keeping the river healthy is in question though, Romero-Heaney said…

Despite lower snow totals, Andy Rossi, general manager at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said he anticipates they will be able to fill Stagecoach Reservoir this year. That said, Rossi is not expecting to be able to fill Yamcolo Reservoir, which is primarily used for agriculture…

In repeated dry years, it can be increasingly hard to fully recover a reservoir until that streak ends, and there is a wetter year. In these dry years, potentially this summer, it can become difficult to meet the need of all the agricultural water diversions, Rossi said.

#GreenRiver: #Wyoming Conservation Pilot Program wraps up — Wyoming Public Radio #DCP #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Little Snake River as it passes under Wyoming Highway 70 near Dixon. Photo credit: Wikimedia

From Wyoming Public Radio (Melodie Edwards):

For the last four years, Green River and Little Snake River basin ranchers have been getting paid not to irrigate in late summer to conserve Colorado River water. But the pilot phase of the program is now over. The next step is developing the technology to measure how much water is actually saved.

Big Piney Rancher and water engineer Chad Espenscheid said the key to making sure the program succeeds is proving the water was really making it down to the Colorado River…

As part of a new drought contingency agreement, Upper Basin states like Wyoming will now be able to store as much as 500,000 acre feet of conserved water to fill lower basin demands. But that’s only if they figure out how to quantify the saved water.

Espenscheid said the program is definitely worth keeping. He said it made it worth his while to participate, paying him enough to expand his cattle herd.

But as for quantifying how much water he really conserved?

“How much? Who knows,” he said. “But for sure there was water going down the creek that we probably would have used.”

Espenscheid said he plans to work on possible methods to answer that question, like developing computer models or creating measuring devices to install in streams.

Wyoming’s Trout Unlimited Director Cory Toye says the test run was popular with ranchers and translated to real benefits for native trout.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.