CHEYENNE — Intensifying drought has prompted the first wintertime call on administration of water rights in the North Platte River drainage in Wyoming since 2005, an announcement that will require several cities and towns to implement backup plans to obtain water rather than rely too much on their rights to draw from the river.
None of the 16 affected communities in central and southeast Wyoming, including Casper, is unprepared, according to the Wyoming State Engineer's Office.
The last drought a decade ago struck soon after Wyoming and Nebraska signed a decree governing the use of North Platte River water. Some towns had trouble securing rights to enough water to meet their needs under the requirements of the 2001 agreement. Solutions included buying water from others with senior rights.
"Fast-forward 10 years. These towns have done an amazing job of planning for mild winters and hot summers," Matt Hoobler, North Platte River coordinator for the State Engineer's Office, said Thursday.
Responses over the past decade have included Casper's purchase of water in a reservoir near the Wind River Range and Saratoga's decision to drill wells into groundwater unconnected to the river that gurgles through town, he said.
Water in the North Platte system, including mountain snowpack, is only about 64 percent of what would be considered a full supply right now. The decline in water levels is even more dramatic considering the rare release of floodwater over the Pathfinder Reservoir spillway in the spring of 2011.
"That was a mere 16-18 months ago, when we had tremendous runoff and people were worried about flooding," Hoobler said.
The call issued Wednesday by State Engineer Pat Tyrrell means people, businesses and communities with older water rights have priority over those with younger rights to access water in the system. Those with younger rights must make arrangements with senior rights holders or get their water from elsewhere.
Specifically, the call applies to rights upstream of Pathfinder Reservoir and allotted since Dec. 6, 1904; and between Pathfinder Dam and Guernsey Reservoir and allotted since April 20, 1923. A couple North Platte River towns get large amounts of water through rights older than those dates, but most do not, Hoobler said.
The call remains in effect until snowfall picks up or May 1, when rules that also cover irrigators' water rights go into effect for the year under the decree. New calls on water administration would have to be issued then if water remains in short supply.
Summertime calls on water rights, even during the past few years of abundant rain and snow, are far more common than winter calls.
"It could turn warm and grass could start growing," Hoobler said. "We could dip even worse. Or the apocalypse of all blizzards could show up and we could lift the call in three weeks. So who knows."
Snowfall around North Park in north-central Colorado, he said, will be just as important to watch as in the Sierra Madre Mountains and Snowy Range in Wyoming. North Park is the headwaters of the North Platte, which flows in a roughly 150-mile-wide semicircle through Wyoming before crossing into Nebraska.
The weekend forecast calls for a major winter storm in southern Wyoming and eastern Nebraska, with up to a foot of snow possible at higher elevations.
Drought conditions on Tuesday ranged from "moderate" to "exceptional" in all of Wyoming except the greater Yellowstone region, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor run by several federal agencies.
Exceptionally dry conditions parched the western two-thirds of Nebraska.
A couple big late winter and early spring snowstorms could yet bring conditions back to normal in the North Platte headwaters, Hoobler said.
"No one's praying for snow more than us here at the State Engineer's Office who work on the North Platte," he said.