Every spring, John Joyce watches as thousands of gallons of water in the Nowood River rush by his ranch in northern Wyoming. It's water that eventually moves into the Bighorn, Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi rivers before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico.
In his mind, and in the minds of other ranchers in his area, it’s wasted water that could help their fields. The answer, they believe, is a 7,500-acre-foot reservoir.
“The Nowood might run somewhere between 500 and 800 cubic feet per second, but in the spring it might run as high as 5,000 cfs, so all of that water goes to Montana,” Joyce said. “We would like to capture a little bit of it and use it ourselves.”
Joyce said the off-channel Alkali Creek Reservoir is a way to keep irrigation late into the season for farms and ranches without damming a major creek or river.
The project is one of a handful the Wyoming Water Development Commission has been studying and could be proposed by Gov. Matt Mead as part of his new water strategy to be released in January.
“We will be building reservoirs,” Mead said at a water conference in October in Casper. “New ones as well as looking at the ones we have.”
Mead argues that storing Wyoming's water is one of the best ways to preserve the state’s resource for the future and use what is legally ours.
Opponents of new reservoirs say the state could find better ways to conserve water that don't cost hundreds of millions of dollars and have untold environmental impacts. At a time when the rest of the country is removing dams, Wyoming should be looking at an innovative future with water, not one that hearkens back to an era of massive concrete structures and tamed rivers.
“Spending tens of millions or billions of dollars building additional surface reservoirs takes the money and effort away from developing more sustainable or efficient alternatives like water conservation measures and groundwater and recharge storage,” said Matt Stoecker, fisheries biologist and producer and co-creator of DamNation, a film by apparel company Patagonia.
“All of the dam projects are subsidized," he said. "They don’t make financial sense on their own, which tells you a lot right there.”
Mead’s initial idea is a simple one: figure out what to do with Wyoming's water.
Wyoming sends millions of acres feet of water out of its borders every year that it could use on its fields or in its towns, said Nephi Cole, Mead’s water policy advisor. The Colorado River basin alone sends down about 200,000-acre-feet of extra water each year – roughly enough water to fill Fontenelle Reservoir.
“Water, more than anything, is tied to everything we do in the state,” Mead said. “It’s tied to everything we have done in the state, and it is going to be tied to everything we do in the future.”
In May 2013, Mead decided to do something. His staff held nine formal listening sessions across the state to gather ideas from the public on what ranchers, businessmen, conservationists and others would like to see for the future of Wyoming’s water. They came up with more than 50 ideas ranging from improved irrigation to putting a large, main-stem dam on the upper Green River northwest of Pinedale.
The state received more than 7,000 emails and 600 surveys. The results quickly narrowed some options, Cole said.
Damming the upper Green River, for example, was unpopular and didn’t rise to the top, he said.
Other ideas, including finishing Fontenelle Reservoir and changing management of Glendo Reservoir, are still being considered. So are measures to improve 100-year old irrigation infrastructure and restore stream systems.
Mead’s 10 in 10 proposal, which calls for 10 small reservoirs in 10 years, will move forward, Cole said.
“You think about what storage would do in mitigation of floods, and you think about what storage would do in mitigation of drought, and we have the ability to do that,” Mead said. “And that would include some small, medium and maybe even large reservoirs.”
Some of the projects could be expensive and controversial and take years, but the state must act now, he said.
“We’re talking about water that is Wyoming‘s water,” Mead said. “We worry what will happen long-term.”
An argument for creativity
Building 10 storage projects in 10 years is the goal, Mead said. It gives the state a plan – a route for the future.
“They take a long period of time,” Mead said. “But I think that’s one of the things the water strategy also does. It gets us on a track.”
But not everyone is sold on building new dams.
“Reservoirs are very expensive and can have obvious environmental impacts,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Off-channel reservoirs, ones that divert water from a creek or river rather than damming the entire stream, are better than mainstem projects, he said. “But they need to be evaluated in the broader cost-benefit context.”
Each reservoir comes with a price tag of between $1,000 and $10,000 per acre foot, said Jason Mead, deputy director of the Dam and Reservoir Division for the Wyoming Water Development Office. One reservoir the Water Development Office is analyzing could be about 14,500 acre feet with a cost of about $113 million.
Wyoming is not facing a water crisis, Fosburgh said. And the state should be smarter and more creative about its water management.
The Cowboy State should focus on conservation projects such as improving irrigation systems, which are both cheaper and quicker to complete, said Stoecker, the DamNation producer and co-creator.
“The beauty of storing water in the ground is there’s no evaporation loss or filling in from sediment,” Stoecker said. “It’s far less of a cost over the long term.”
Even off-channel dams such as the one being studied on Wyoming’s Nowood River will divert water from a creek. Reservoirs also lose untold amounts of water in evaporation. Water that would otherwise have flowed through the state’s rivers and streams, Stoecker said.
And in preparing for the future, dams are inherently shortsighted. Each has a life span, he said, eventually filling with sediment and ceasing to be useful.
Law of the river
No one has calculated exactly how much water Wyoming sends downstream that could be used within its borders. Part of that is intentional, Cole said. If the state knew exactly how much water it wasn’t using, downstream states could potentially ask for that water to legally become theirs.
Wyoming water law is complicated, its streams contributing to multiple river systems and basins. The Cowboy State belongs to seven compacts with other states and falls under two Supreme Court decrees.
One of the geographically largest compacts is the Colorado River Compact, which is also the source of some of Mead’s concern.
Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah are called the upper basin states, sending water down into the lower basin states, or Nevada, Arizona and California.
As populations in the lower basin states grow, and need for water becomes more insatiable, Mead worries that they could grow politically strong enough to legally begin taking Wyoming’s water.
“It’s not imminent, and it’s not being suggested by them,” Mead said. “But I think we have to be aware of that fact. Their population base and numbers are larger than ours.”
Each state in the compact should also plan for its own future, he said.
The Colorado River Compact requires the U.S. to allow a certain amount of water to flow into Mexico each year. It also requires the upper basin states to send a certain amount of water to the lower basin states each year. Of the leftover water, Wyoming is allowed to use 14 percent. The rest is divided up by percentage among Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, said Jason Robison, assistant professor at the University of Wyoming’s law school specializing in water law.
Any water Wyoming doesn’t use heads downstream as a bonus to what the state is required to send. Wyoming needs to figure out what to do with that water, Mead said.
Because it is illegal to store water without a purpose, the reservoir projects Mead is likely to propose will be used primarily for irrigation, municipal and industrial uses, Cole said.
The contract cannot be renegotiated without approval from all seven states and a blessing from Congress as long as Wyoming and other upper basin states meet their requirements, Robison said.
He then added: “I’ve never heard a policy person on the ground say renegotiation is a viable alternative.”
Storing the future
Developing a plan for Wyoming’s water will be controversial, Mead said, and people will disagree.
“We have to do this as a state,” he said. “As expensive as it is, it’s much more expensive in every way, not just dollars, for the state not to do it.”
Ranchers like Joyce in Manderson agree.
Water flowing through Wyoming that rightfully belongs to the Cowboy State should be used. Extra water in the late season could allow farmers and ranchers to grow more sugar beets, corn, alfalfa and grass hays and malt barley.
Most important, Joyce wants to see that water stick around instead of watching it rush downstream.