Wyoming Water Strategy provides direction for the future of water resourcesWritten by Saige Albert
Cheyenne – “When the Governor began developing the energy strategy, the number one initiative to come out was a water strategy,” said Nephi Cole, a policy advisor for Governor Matt Mead, during the 2015 Wyoming Farm Bureau Legislative meeting on Feb. 13. “Ninety-seven percent of residents identified that as a critical component.”
As a result, Mead deployed the Wyoming Water Strategy, titled, “Leading the Charge” – the product of numerous listening sessions where Wyomingites expressed their concern about the state’s water.
“Wyoming has a legacy of water,” Cole continues. “There is a rich history of water in Wyoming, and most of the thoughts in the water strategy aren’t new.”
The resulting water strategy strives to address the needs for water that Wyoming citizens see today while also being flexible enough to accommodate the changing times.
“Like the energy strategy, this is just the kickoff,” Cole explained. “We don’t consider these initiatives an end-all. They are really just a call to action.”
The water strategy is comprised of 10 initiatives, which are divided under four themes, or areas of concern – water management; water development; water conservation and protection; and water and watershed restoration.
Under the water management heading, three initiatives focus on protecting Wyoming’s water law.
“We believe our water law is the best in the nation, and it needs to be protected,” Cole said. “It is critically important that the way we do business doesn’t change.”
The first initiative under this theme is credible climate, weather and stream-flow data.
“The idea for this initiative is that to plan for water and understand that, to make the most beneficial use, we need to have the best data we can,” he explained. “We need to have robust data sets to understand what is going on so we can plan for it.”
Also under the theme of water management is the development, of a uniform hydrographer’s operations manual, which will increase consistency among water managers.
Cole said, “This creates a hands-on manual that is uniform statewide, so when our hydrographers make decisions, it is on the same base set of knowledge.”
The result is a more uniform, predictable environment for water management.
The third and final initiative under the water management theme is groundwater analysis and control area management framework – an initiative that recognizes the hard work of Wyoming citizens.
“We discovered that we have an aquifer where there are areas that are depleting faster than they can be recharged,” Cole explained. “There is an interesting provision in statute for groundwater control areas that is very unique.”
The provision allows for users to develop a plan to tackle the issues of depletion of aquifers in a control area, and the State Engineer’s Office can manage by that user-defined plan.
“This initiative will help establish a framework and guidelines for how to deal with groundwater control in the future,” Cole continued. “The people who know most about local problems are the local people. The Governor is a huge supporter of these grassroots efforts.”
The second major theme of the water strategy is water development, which includes four initiatives.
Since the late 1800s, Wyoming’s water leaders have emphasized the importance of developing waters.
“We not only have to plan and protect our water, but we have to make sure we plan for how we will beneficially use that water,” Cole explained. “Water is a use-it-or-lose-it commodity. It is important that we stake our claim.”
Dams and reservoirs
The first initiative under this theme is the Fontenelle Dam and outworks infrastructure completion project. The initiative addresses the long-overdue completion of the dam, which would allow more water storage.
“We can’t use between 100,000 and 200,000 acre-feet of storage because if we were to use it, we would risk the dam’s failure,” Cole explained, noting that, the dam was never completed. “We believe for a modest fee, we can complete the structure and increase the capacity of water that we can beneficially use.”
Next, the Glendo Reservoir full utilization project is a study initiative to look at how to best utilize the water in Glendo.
“The bottom two-thirds of the reservoir is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation like a storage project. The top one-third is managed by the Army Corp of Engineers, whose primary concern is to protect facilities downstream,” Cole said. “We believe it is worth talking about how we can utilize that space longer.”
Third under water development is the “10 in 10” initiative.
“Governor Mead is very solidly behind this initiative, which is to put in 10 small reservoirs – between 2,000 and 20,000 acre-feet – in 10 years,” Cole explained. “We realize that is extremely ambitious, but Wyoming can do it.”
Cole noted that locations will be determined based on input from communities and the public.
Rounding out the initiatives under water development is the collaborative planning and authorization processes initiative.
“This initiative is to look at redundancies in agencies to see how we can reduce planning across platforms,” he continued. “For example, there are at least three plans to address the same issues on Kirby Creek just outside of Thermopolis. We want to look at a more collaborative process that satisfies our planning requirements.”
Conservation and protection
Next, water conservation and protection appears as a vital component in using Wyoming’s water.
“This means that we are taking care of our resource from a quality perspective so we can use it at the top, as well as at the bottom, of our watersheds,” Cole explains.
The sole initiative under this theme is titled water quality data integrity, which strives to make sure credible chemical, physical and biological data is available for decision-making.
“The final area of consensus in water and watershed restoration,” Cole commented.
Initiative Nine, river restoration, looks to create both support and technical expertise to help move projects forward that improve rivers, such as efforts toward Russian olive removal that have been underway along the North Platte River.
“The final initiative is collaborative and fish passage restoration,” Cole said. “If we are doing work on structures and we are paying for it, we need to make sure that we don’t face unforeseen costs by having to rebuild something because we didn’t consider fish passage. In Wyoming the water and wildlife are both ours, so we know that we can manage and plan for strong farms and fish at the same time.”
“We are excited to see where the water strategy will go,” Cole said. “We really think this will guide us into the foreseeable future where we deal with water issues, and we hope Wyoming’s public will stay involved as we move forward.”