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Little Snake River

Lawmakers are fighting over funding for a controversial dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek that flows into the Little Snake River, seen above. Ranchers in the basin support the plan but critics say it is too expensive and benefits irrigators in Colorado who have not committed to paying a share of the costs.

CHEYENNE — State Sen. Larry Hicks vowed Thursday to put an $80 million southwest Wyoming dam project back in a water construction bill after the House removed it along with a portion of its funding.

Hicks, R-Baggs, made his pledge after the House, in a voice vote Thursday, stripped the bill of the proposed 280-foot-high dam in Carbon County’s Little Snake River drainage, along with $10 million to seed the project. The Joint Appropriations Committee had already cut $30 million from a proposed $40 million appropriation sought by the Wyoming Water Development Commission for the dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek.

The House action sends the water construction bill to the Senate with no mention of the West Fork dam. But Hicks vowed to revive the project. He chairs the Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee to which the measure was referred.

“We’ll put it back in when it comes over here,” he told WyoFile. “Heck, we might even put in $60 million.”

Representatives opposing the dam cited its high cost, its limited irrigation benefits and a water-development program that doesn’t prioritize projects according to costs, benefits and persons served. The proposed dam and reservoir would store 10,000 acre feet in Hick’s district, mostly to benefit between 67 and 100 irrigators.

That limited benefit and the fact that Colorado irrigators would see a boon but have not agreed to contribute funds created skepticism among House members.

Supporters have cited $73.7 million in public benefits and proposed that Wyoming irrigators pay only 8 percent of the $80 million project, leaving the state to fund or find the $73.6 million balance. Wyoming has secured no permits for the proposed dam that would store water above the Little Snake River and Yampa, Green and Colorado rivers downstream.

A quarter of the water stored behind the dam “would go to the state to the south of us,” said Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) who proposed the amendment to strip the last $10 million from the water construction bill. Wyoming’s money would be “benefiting people who are not paying,” he told colleagues Thursday.

“I do not think that this is a project that we should proceed with at this time,” he said on the House floor. There are better dam projects for water development money, Schwartz said. Also, the proposal costs more than what’s in a construction account and that account fills slowly.

Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, sought to rally colleagues to keep the West Fork Dam alive, citing Gov. Matt Mead’s 10-in-10 program that would build 10 water storage projects in a decade. Funding the dam is necessary to encourage and obtain contributions from Colorado, he said.

Rep. Hans Hunt, R-Newcastle, chairman of the Select Water Committee, also supported the dam. “I would hate to derail this project,” he said. Appropriating only $10 million now “gives everybody a chance to step back to move forward …”

Funding could come from a Trump administration infrastructure bill, he said. “In general, [we’ll] possibly not have to put up the original $40 million that was proposed,” he said. “When Wyoming has infrastructure, that’s a great thing. We can find funding from somewhere else.”

But supporters could not hold back a tide of opposition.

When projects are evaluated, they are not prioritized, Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said. “It’s first-in-line, first-in-right,” he said of the Water development funding system. “There was no analysis whether or not this was the best use of our dollars.”

The water construction account, which holds some $50 million, wouldn’t cover the cost, he said, and money would have to be taken from somewhere else. Further, the construction account replenishes at a rate of less than $1 million a year, unless supplemented by the Legislature, critics argued.

The reservoir would irrigate only some 2,000 new acres, benefiting only up to 100 irrigators. “This is not the highest and best use,” Nicholas said of Wyoming’s money. Dam backers would say in the future “folks, we just spent $10 million on this so we have to move forward with it,” he said.Appropriating $10 million would prolong “the bleeding,” said Rep. Mike Madden (R-Buffalo), a former member of the Legislature’s Select Water Committee. The project pencils out at a high per-acre cost, he said. Irrigation at $700 to $900 an acre is justifiable, Madden said. But with the West Fork project, “we’re talking 30- to 50 thousand dollars an acre,” he said. “This is totally inappropriate.”

For Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, the plan is flawed in seeking to secure the necessary Forest Service property before obtaining environmental construction permits and Colorado’s fiscal participation. Before obtaining the land, “you would want to know that you have the project permitted … and the participation of the state to the south,” he said. Should the project falter, “we would pay a premium price for property that we would then have to dispose of at a discounted price,” he said.

Madden backed him up. “Government’s going to buy high and sell low if it doesn’t pan out,” he said.

Discussion of additional storage in the basin has been going on for so long that Rep. Hunt, who won election to the Legislature in 2010 before he completed college, said people asked him if he was even born when water planning in the Little Snake River drainage began.

Irrigators in the basin have said Wyoming owes them additional water storage after diverting flows starting in 1965 for municipal use in Cheyenne. Between 2007 and 2016 the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities has diverted an average of 9,673 acre-feet annually through a three-quarter-mile-long tunnel under the Continental Divide, said Brad Brooks, the utility director.Wyoming built the High Savery Dam about 20 miles from the proposed West Fork of Battle Creek reservoir, in part to make up for Cheyenne’s use. Constructed beginning in 2001, High Savery Reservoir was first filled to its 22,433 acre-feet capacity in 2005. High Savery serves irrigators on Savery Creek, a tributary of the Little Snake River.

West Fork backers said the two reservoirs would be operated in tandem to benefit irrigators and fisheries, ensuring that trout thrive in cool water in late summer months.

Cheyenne’s water diverted from the Little Snake River Basin is held in the Hog Park Reservoir before flowing into the Encampment and North Platte rivers — both east of the divide. Through a paper transfer, Cheyenne then uses other water in the North Platte drainage for its municipal needs.

“It’s strictly a gallon-for-gallon trade,” Brooks said. Cheyenne secured rights to unallocated water west of the divide to enable the diversion, he said.

Cheyenne can fill the Hog Park Reservoir with up to 22,600 acre feet, Brooks said, but typically doesn’t. Diversions ranged from 18,000 acre-feet in 2008 to 6,353 in 2017, he said.

Andrew Graham contributed to this report.

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