Water weight

By on December 2, 2014

Examining new efforts to protect a precious Wyoming resource

Seminoe has 180 miles of shoreline and is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in Wyoming. WYOMING TOURISM

Seminoe has 180 miles of shoreline and is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in Wyoming. WYOMING TOURISM

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – During this past summer, as high-profile news concerning Medicaid expansion, wolf management and same-sex marriage grabbed headlines, a monumental shift in thinking occurred that will shape the future of Wyoming throughout the 21st century. Sparsely attended meetings — nine in all — were held across the state, including in Jackson, that signified a governor’s office launch of a new policy initiative aimed toward acknowledging the Cowboy State’s most precious commodity. It’s not oil, coal or natural gas that will be more vital to the state in the future. Water is the critical resource of renewed interest, and Governor Matt Mead’s “10 in 10” policy is the first step in recognizing that what’s ours is ours until it flows away over state borders.

Drop by drop: Starting small

“The importance of water to Wyoming’s future cannot be overstated,” Mead said in kicking off the state’s new Water Strategy policy — an offshoot of the Energy Strategy program. “The policy will allow us to be proactive in ensuring a strong future for Wyoming.”

Public input was clear. In statewide community outreach sessions that began a year and a half ago, 97 percent of respondents suggested that a water strategy is what they really wanted to see.

“What it should look like, we don’t know yet,” said Mead’s policy adviser Nephi Cole. “But the next challenge becomes taking that public mandate and shaping something from these public meetings.”

The “something,” so far, is the governor’s “10 in 10” initiative — a promise to add at least 10 small reservoirs to the state’s water development plan by the year 2025. Small reservoirs are classified as those holding 2,000 to 20,000 acre-feet of water. They are built primarily on smaller tributaries and springs. The state has identified or been alerted to about 15 prime locations for these small reservoirs, proposed by various municipalities and private consortiums.  According to Cole, state officials hope to begin the arduous process of working through “funding, permitting and other intricacies involved in putting them on the ground in the coming years.”

“The outreach program resulted in over 100 pages of content and feedback, which we consolidated into about 59 ideas,” Cole said. “Some of these ideas may be duds, but you have to be willing to fail to truly have success.”

Cole said responses from more than 7,000 emails, 600 surveys and the listening sessions all featured strong and repeated opinions about water storage in particular. Large storage facilities like Fontenelle, Boysen and Buffalo Bill were noted. A proposition to create a new reservoir on the Upper Green River met with mostly disapproval, so authorities shelved the idea of damming that historic waterway. But over and over again, in semiarid places like the Nowood River off the Bighorn outside of Manderson and Bull Creek south of Buffalo, local groups clamored for a way to hold their water before it evaporated or left the state.

In the face of on-again, off-again drought conditions in most of the state, growers and livestock producers watch helplessly as spring runoff flows by unneeded in May and June, while late-summer crops suffer from petering streams exhausted of snowmelt. Mineral extractors, sportsmen, fisheries, golf course managers and ski resort operators also count their blessings or lament the dearth of H20. There’s either too much of it or not enough.

H2O law

Wyoming water law is complex. Western U.S. states use the “prior appropriation” document to govern water rights. It’s known colloquially as “first in time, first in line.” Irrigators with early claims have first dibs on water that flows through or adjacent to their property. After that, downstream users get what’s left. But all water belongs to the state.

Superseding individual rights are a series of seven compacts and two Supreme Court decrees. “These exist at a 30,000 foot level, so to speak, above those individual water rights,” Cole said. “Things like the Colorado River Compact and the Snake River Compact determine what percentage of a river a state is allowed to use.” Wyoming is allowed to use 14 percent of leftover water flowing to the Colorado River from the Green, according to the compact.

Wyoming keeps state water consumption and waste as vague as possible by design, according to Cole. Knowing exactly how many cubic feet of melted snowpack head out of state unused would open the door to lower basin states like Nevada, Arizona and California demanding the same as precedent should Wyoming develop future strategies to store more water.

Mead has stated on numerous occasions that Wyoming is a state of builders not hoarders. Still, the Mead administration is now more aggressively looking for ways to retain state water before it floats away. “Wyoming needs to figure out what to do with that water,” Mead said. The 10 in 10 policy will have inherent in it specific stated uses like irrigation, municipal and industrial for stored water in order to remain lawful. It’s illegal to stockpile water without an attached purpose.

“All water in the state of Wyoming belongs to the state. The state grants water rights to those who petition for beneficial use at the going rate of 1 cfs per 70 acres as a rule of thumb,” Cole explained. “But unique to Wyoming is that water is tied to the land. That’s not the case, for example, in Colorado, where someone can purchase water rights from, say, a ski resort and use it on a golf course. Water rights exist only where there is a location for diversion, a means of conveyance and a fixed place of beneficial use. This helps preserve ecological balance within the state, especially through drought periods, and it’s one of the reasons why people are very hesitant to see that change.”

Wyoming’s water laws are among the most sophisticated and mature in the West. And some of the oldest. “Wyoming water law was set out in the first articles of the state,” Cole said. “Water was extremely important even then.”

Elwood Mead (no relation to the current governor) wrote the bulk of the policy in 1890 at the age of 32 when he served as Wyoming’s territorial engineer. It met with some resistance.

Johnson County residents distrusted most legislatures out of Cheyenne and voted against the new constitution. After the vicious winter and preceding drought of 1886-1887, rangelands in Wyoming were parched. Cattlemen grew restless and cutthroat. Two years after statehood, the infamous Johnson County War ensued, primarily fueled by cattle barons and their resistance to government intervention. Wyomingites have been fighting over water ever since.

Water wars

Wyoming has been embroiled in water fights over the past few years. A border squabble with Montana has resulted in a nasty lawsuit that is still ongoing. Farmers and ranchers along the Tongue River south of Miles City, Montana, claim Wyoming is using too much water.

The state of Montana brought suit against Wyoming in 2007, alleging that the Cowboy State was in breach of the 1950 Yellowstone River Compact. Each side has won and lost some major court decisions along the way. Courts agreed with Montana that Wyoming was using more water than it was allowed, particularly when it came to the massive amounts of water pumped underground in mining operations. Wyoming agriculture producers, however, were upheld when it came to their rights to use water for irrigation. Other fine points are still in litigation.

Then there was Million. Entrepreneur Aaron Million rocked Wyoming leaders when he announced elaborate plans to siphon off water from the Green River while it was still in Wyoming to slake the thirst of Front Range residents in Colorado. The Fort Collins real estate investor ruffled feathers when he proposed the plan to snatch 250,000 acre-feet of water per year from just above the Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

Siphoning off that amount of water would involve one of the largest pipelines ever conceived. An estimated 350,000 tons of steel would be needed for the 550-mile pipe’s trek up and over the Continental Divide, along with 16 natural gas-fueled pump stations, two new reservoirs and countless miles of maintenance road. Million’s plan had more brass than brains, but it alarmed state water managers and forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies to look it over.

Million hasn’t given up, but the paper trail has all but petered out. “Mr. Million was attempting to utilize Colorado’s rights of diversion to move Colorado water from Wyoming,” Cole remembered. “I’m hesitant to speak out on the project because I don’t know where exactly it is at this point. Let’s say, I would qualify that project as speculative. It does not appear the documents we’ve requested have justified any action on our part.”

A cowboy resource

Mead’s office is looking at a few other options in addition to the 10 in 10 policy. Cole said the Fontenelle Reservoir, in particular, is a place where water and money could be saved.

“Fully utilizing the storage we have is one thing we are focusing on,” Cole said. “Fontenelle, for instance, holds 350,000 acre-feet of water but it is not all usable water. The outlet is not completed. The interior wall of the dam is not armored. So there are 150,000 to 200,000 acre-feet of dead storage space in that structure. That’s an estimated $10 million project instead of $500 million to build a new one like it.”

Dams are not without environmental impacts. The 10 in 10 initiative will no doubt meet with some opposition from naturalists who prefer that rivers and streams flow freely. In fact, there has already been pushback from some environmental organizations.

But the governor has declared water to be Wyoming’s most important natural resource. “It’s tied to everything we do in this state,” he said.

Cole said, “The goal is not to put up a giant dam and keep all water in Wyoming. But for the benefit of each community or each industry, they will decide where water is most important. For Jackson, maybe you need water for that new brewery or golf course.”

How much water do we use and when?

Irrigation accounts for the most water used in Wyoming, but usage is in decline. The mining industry is the fastest-growing water consumer due to new hydro-fracturing practices in oil and gas production. The average golf course uses an estimated 312,000 gallons a day, according to Audubon International. Courses in Wyoming tend to require more water than even those in the Southeast. In Palm Springs, where at least 63 golf courses vie for water in the desert, each course drinks up a million gallons a day.

Still, water demands at golf courses and ski resorts nowhere near threaten supply in Wyoming, especially in the Jackson Hole area.

About Jake Nichols

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