Drought ResistantWritten by Christy Hemken
Water tour features Grass and Cottonwood creek improvements
Big Horn Basin – The 2009 Wyoming Water Association tour featured a variety of water development and management projects throughout the southwestern region of the Big Horn Basin.
Among the tour stops were a produced water site, the Grass Creek Weed Management Area and several water developments and improvements on the LU Ranch, owned and managed by Mike Healy, and Wyoming Whiskey at Kirby.
The produced water, which flows into Cottonwood Creek from the Hamilton Dome oil field, annually contributes up to 10,000 acre-feet of water to the drainage.
“This produced water has been crucial for the creek,” said area rancher Dee Hillberry. “There’s been a lot of pressure to not put this kind of water in creeks, but it’s important to our watershed and the basin.”
He said Cottonwood is the only creek that runs all summer long at that end of the drainage. “We spend a lot of time defending this source of water because it’s important to the community and to the state to keep this produced water on the ground and usable,” he said.
He said the water is warm when it comes out of ponds higher up the system, and as it cools it precipitates minerals and salts. “By the time it gets to our fields it’s outstanding irrigation and livestock water,” he noted.
Larry Bentley, area resident and Wyoming Department of Agriculture staff, added, “It’s 50 miles from Thermopolis to Meeteetse, and without this water running in the lower part of the basin there would be absolutely no live water from July to mid-November. The importance of this water is more than most recognize.”
The local watershed district has set in motion an initiative to add storage to the system to hold produced water through the winter. Hillberry said a Level 1 study with the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) has already been completed, which identified potential sites, and they’re now in the midst of Level 2, which has narrowed the possibilities down to one location.
Of the site, Hillberry said, “They claim it’s one of the best sites they’ve found because it has essentially no issues. There are no wetlands or trees and it’s got a good bottom and with reasonable cost we can store 4,500 acre-feet in the reservoir, catching water all winter long before it goes into the river and make it available the next summer for irrigating along the creek.”
“It’s a great project,” he said, adding, “We’re looking forward to moving it along, and we expect the engineering work and feasibility study to be done next year.”
An additional reservoir is in the works for the area on the Grass Creek drainage. Smaller, at 1,000 acre-feet, it will service the irrigators along Grass Creek.
Of the produced water from the energy industry, Hillberry said, “It’s good water, and it’s an important resource for our community.”
Moving through the tour agenda, the afternoon focused on weed management and water improvements on the LU Ranch on Grass Creek.
“The Grass Creek Weed Management Area formed the same time the local watershed improvement district was forming,” said Hot Springs Weed and Pest Supervisor Marvin Andreen.
To date the project has removed the Russian olive from between 22 and 25 stream miles along Grass Creek. The group also focuses on other weed concerns, including Russian knapweed and spotted knapweed.
“This area used to be more blue than green,” said Andreen of the progress. “We’re starting to heal this riparian area and build it back.”
Part of that effort has been to create a beaverdam effect by dropping downed Russian olives across the water and the planting of new willows along the banks.
Landowner Mike Healy of the LU Ranch said, “This is one of those areas that hopefully in 10 or 15 years we’ll start seeing willow growth come in here. If we can manage the creek bottom the willows will come, because the seed source is here up above in the drainage, as are the beavers.”
Andreen called the project a ‘winnable drainage,” compared to some others with a much larger infestation. “We took it on and we’ve got it going where we want it,” he said.
Of the other water projects and improvements on the LU, Healy said, “Because we operate in several long valleys in the foothills of the Absarokas we’ve had difficulty creating a rotation we can use to give us a different season of use on the pastures. With the water developments we’ve been able to take two valleys and combine them.”
In addition to rotations, Healy said the new water placement also keeps cattle off the creek bottoms. “We focused on off-channel placement of rubber tire water tanks and we were able to increase access to several plateaus on top of the ridges.”
The LU ran the rotation for the first time in summer of 2008, and Healy said it “works like a charm.”
“The cattle are distributed so much more than what they’ve been in prior years, and the grazing impact has been significantly reduced,” he noted.
Healy said the ranch has worked on water projects for the last 10 years, and he estimates about five remain.
“The ridge between Little Grass Creek and Grass Creek doesn’t have much water, and we need a source of water up there on both sides of the fence,” he explained. The ranch has a commitment from WWDC to help with water lines on the ridge, and now it awaits installation because the contractor is currently working on Hillberry’s ranch.
Another project to commence with the end of this summer’s irrigation is the replacement of flood irrigation with two pivots on an irrigated pasture. That project will also convert the open ditch to underground pipe, preventing transportation loss.
“There are a lot of places that still need improvements, and we try to do a little every year,” said Healy, adding they’re close to finished with their summer country and about half done in the winter country.
A big result of the water work is the disappearance of the ranch’s water truck, which Healy joked they intended to bronze. “We don’t have to drive the water truck anymore, and we’ve saved a huge amount of labor there,” he added.
“These water improvements have made us a little more drought tolerant. We’re now drought resistant, and in better shape than we were before to deal with drought,” he said.