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Guest Opinions

Wyoming Water Development Office Looks Toward Future

Written by Harry LaBonde

By Harry LaBonde, P.E., Wyoming Water Development Office Director

The Wyoming Water Development Office (WWDO) is in the middle of our busy summer season having initiated 57 new or expanded projects that were funded in the 2015 Legislative session. As these projects begin, the WWDO is also now accepting new applications for projects to be considered during the 2016 legislative session. The application deadline for new projects is Aug. 15.

Other newsworthy items regarding recent events at WWDO include three main items. Jon Wade, the planning division administrator, retired on June 12 after 35 years of service at the WWDO. Barry Lawrence has been named to replace Jon as the Planning Division Administrator. Many of you may know Barry, as he has been employed at the WWDO since 1999, and he has managed the state’s weather modification pilot program since inception in 2006, as well as the operational weather modification program in the Wind River Mountains.

We also have our Wyoming Water and Climate Web Atlas. This tool can be accessed at wrds.uwyo.edu/wcwa.html. It is a collaboration between the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) and the Water Resources Data System (WRDS) that allows the user to access water data and reports using an on-line mapping tool.

One of the areas that is receiving a lot of focus in the office is the Governor’s Wyoming Water Strategy. The Strategy defines 10 water initiatives and the WWDO is responsible for implementing four of these initiatives. Initiative Number Six, “10 in 10,” is very ambitious, as it seeks to build 10 new reservoirs in the next 10 years. Currently, WWDO has 15 different reservoir projects that are in varying stages of planning, including reconnaissance review, alternative analyses, feasibility studies including environmental review, design and permitting.

From these 15 projects, 10 will be selected to proceed to construction over the next 10 years. Five of these projects have completed the feasibility analysis stage and the WWDO believes that each of these five projects represent a viable project. As such, the WWDC, Legislature and Governor have appropriated funding to proceed with permitting and design on each project.

These five projects are briefly described below.

First, Alkali Creek Reservoir, located in Big Horn County, will impound approximately 8,000 acre-feet (AF) of water. The proposed dam is a 110 feet high earth fill structure. The reservoir will provide a minimum recreation/fishery pool of 2,000 AF and provide almost 6,000 AF of late season irrigation water to the lower Nowood River drainage.

Next, Upper Leavitt Reservoir, also located in Big Horn County, will impound approximately 6,600 AF of water. The new dam will replace/enlarge the existing Leavitt Reservoir, which holds 643 AF, with a 95 feet high earth fill dam.  The reservoir will provide an additional 4,460 AF of supplemental irrigation supply to the Beaver Creek and Shell Creek drainages along with a 1,500 AF minimum recreation/fishery pool.

Next, Big Sandy Reservoir Enlargement, located in Sublette and Sweetwater counties, will impound an additional 11,000 AF of water. If maximized, the project will enlarge the existing reservoir by raising the existing spillway by approximately five feet. The additional water storage will be used to improve the reliability of the irrigation supply for Eden Valley Irrigation and Drainage District.

Middle Piney Reservoir is also located in Sublette County and impounds approximately 3,370 AF. It is owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and, due to safety of dam issues, is at risk of being decommissioned. This project will reconstruct a portion of the earth fill dam to resolve the safety issues. The WWDO intends to enter into a long-term management agreement with the USFS to provide water to downstream irrigators. Also contemplated is the ultimate acquisition of the dam and water rights by the state of Wyoming.

Finally, West Fork Battle Creek Reservoir is a proposed new reservoir in Carbon County that will impound approximately 8,500 AF of water on West Fork Battle Creek, tributary to the Little Snake River. The 260-foot-high roller-compacted concrete dam will supply 5,000 AF of irrigation water, 1,500 AF of water for fishery purposes downstream of the dam and a 2,000 AF conservation pool in the reservoir for recreation and fishing.

All five of these projects are entering the permitting phase of development and will be required to undergo a rigorous National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, which will include an environmental impact statement and public comment process. Pending a determination that these projects represent the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative, the Army Corps of Engineers should be in a position to issue a 404 permit.

The NEPA process also fulfills requirements of federal agencies with land management jurisdiction to obtain right-of-way permits from BLM and special use permits from USFS. The NEPA process will be comprehensive and is expected to take three to four years to complete for each project. Design, land acquisition, state permits and water rights will be completed concurrently with the NEPA process. Construction is therefore expected to start on all five facilities in the next three to five years. 

Governor Mead is very supportive of building additional water storage projects in the state because of the resulting benefits that accrue from these projects. Reservoirs provide water for irrigation of crops thereby benefitting the local economy, environmental benefits through water conservation, fisheries and wildlife habitat enhancement, flood protection, flatwater recreation from conservation pools, and they allow Wyoming and its citizens better endure the periodic droughts that frequent our state. For these reasons, reservoir storage will continue to be a high priority for Wyoming’s water development program.