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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
A proposed 264-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest of Carbon County is highlighting a divide between local ranchers who say they need a dependable source of late-season water for irrigation and people who say the benefits of a dam for the public overall will be minimal at best.
“This is a very strongly supported community effort,” rancher and former state legislator Pat O’Toole told Cowboy State Daily.
Nearly 950 comments were submitted to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service about the project last month, with an overwhelming majority opposing it.
The Wyoming portion of the Little Snake River Basin, where the dam will be located in Southwest Wyoming, consists of the communities of Baggs, Savery and Dixon near the Colorado border. These communities have a combined population of roughly 500 people.
Ranchers Want It
Stretching from the top of the Continental Divide to the Basin’s western end are nearly 100 ranching families that depend on the Little Snake River and its tributaries to support their livelihood.
O’Toole said in contrast to the mostly negative comments that came from as far away as Poland and San Francisco, and also a few other parts of Wyoming, local residents closest to the proposed dam support it.
“It looks to me like the numbers are really indicating the need,” he said.
John Espy, a Carbon County commissioner, said although this viewpoint is accurate, he said there have been some local concerns that the state is offering too much for the project.
The NRCS is working on an environmental impact study for the project while the U.S. Forest Service considers whether a land exchange with the state is feasible and in the public’s interest.
The Forest Service will study a 6,282-acre land swap proposed by the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments. If determined to be feasible, the Medicine Bow National Forest, where the dam is planned, would then make a determination based on public interest whether to turn the dam site inside the national forest into state property.
Encampment resident Jeb Steward submitted a comment saying he wants the Forest Service to delay its decision about the land exchange until the Wyoming Legislature gives a final appropriation of money for the project.
The Forest Service will inspect all public comments made on the project, but will only consider comments if they raise specific issues or concerns regarding the project or the study process, not if they merely express an opinion on it.
In other words, a comment is not inherently considered a vote for or against the project.
Within the West Fork Battle Creek Watershed Plan EIS, six alternatives to the dam also will be studied, including continuing the status quo and an option that would involve habitat restoration.
Serving A Need
O’Toole, the first irrigator at the head of the river system, would stand to benefit greatly from the dam.
Coming off a dry winter last year, his ranch only got about 20% of its guaranteed water rights allotment. He said this drop-off severely cut into his late-season irrigation efforts.
“I think that’s what people are seeing, that volatility of supply,” he said.
The proposed $80 million West Fork Dam and Reservoir would have the capacity to hold 6,500 acre-feet of water in the Little Snake River Valley and parts of Colorado.
Another smaller allocation of water would be dedicated toward maintaining a minimum water flow into Battle Creek and the Little Snake, Yampa, Little Snake and Colorado rivers downstream.
The reservoir itself would encompass 130 acres.
The dam would be located near the confluence of the West Fork of Battle and Haggarty creeks in the Medicine Bow National Forest between Baggs and Encampment in a steep, heavily forested area.
Although fisheries and other wildlife could benefit from the consistent water flow guaranteed with the development of the dam, some argue that it would prevent native cutthroat trout from migrating up and down the streams.
O’Toole agrees that a delicate balance needs to be found.
“How do we maintain systems throughout the entire Western United States that maintain the wildlife as well as produce food?” O’Toole asked.
The primary goal of the proposed dam and reservoir is to provide a supplement of late-season water supply to serve around 19,000 acres of irrigated land in the Little Snake River Basin in southern Wyoming and northwestern Colorado, as well as support agricultural producers during drier years.
One piece of the puzzle most parties can agree on is that there has been an increase in late-season water shortages in recent years.
According to the NRCS, the Little Snake River Basin above its confluence with Sand Creek experiences irrigation water shortages of about 12,000 acre-feet. The Wyoming Water Development Office is planning a conveyance loss study in the Little Snake River Basin that will likely be performed in 2024.
The NRCS says the West Fork project “may” mitigate future drought impacts to agriculture and natural resources negatively impacted by climate change and would benefit fisheries, riparian and wetland wildlife habitats, and water-associated recreation.
The valley of the Little Snake River is made up of family ranches and farms, their owners looking at what the next century will bring for their livelihood.
Many, O’Toole said, see the dam as a viable answer.
“What we’re trying to find is the right balance,” O’Toole said. “How do we have enough water up high in the system to have late-season water?”
He said a multitude of restoration efforts have already been in the Little Snake Basin over the last 30 years. In 2004, the High Savery Dam and Reservoir was built, which serves the lower part of the Little Snake River Valley. The new dam would supplant this project but at a higher elevation and with more storage.
“The two working together would connect the whole valley,” O’Toole said.
He sees the dam as a matter of planning for the future and late-season water shortages rather than relying purely on current conditions.
“It’s disturbing to see the agenda of trying to whip people into a frenzy when in fact it’s a very great project,” he said. “This reservoir is part of an overall watershed management strategy that we develop in our community with a conservation district, great leadership in our community to look into the future.”
The Little Snake River crosses between Wyoming and Colorado 32 times, so ranchers in Colorado also would be significantly impacted by the project.
The dam would store water above the already-depleted Colorado River Basin downstream from the dam through the Yampa and Green rivers. The massive Colorado River is drying up due to a combination of overuse of water resources and a historic more than two-decades-long drought.
“It is my opinion that the land exchange and new reservoir are not in the public interest and I oppose this plan,” Karen Anderson, a Colorado resident, commented on the project. “My son and I have traveled many places in this great country and believe that national forest land needs to be protected for the people and the future and not squandered for special interest groups.”
Friends of the Yampa, a Steamboat Springs, Colorado-based environmental advocacy group, submitted a request in its comment that downstream effects of the dam be thoroughly studied.
This downstream connection makes the dam not only an issue of importance for Colorado residents, but also the five other states within the Colorado River Basin.
Espy, who owns a ranch in the Little Snake watershed, believes that downstream users also would benefit.
“I think the downstream basin users would benefit from the water rights being held,” he said. “It would allow us to store water on the upper end of the basin and bring back to the Little Snake and Yampa in the late fall.”
He said often when downstream complaints are made about lack of water, the upper basin users don’t have any water either. Espy sees the dam as a way for Wyoming to secure its rights guaranteed in the Colorado River Compact.
Planning For The Future
Water issues have been a prevalent discussion in Colorado over the last few decades because of its much larger population. O’Toole believes this will become a familiar talking point in Wyoming soon as well.
“Wyoming’s storage all around the state is why we have a rural economy,” he said.
Water from the Little Snake Basin also drains into the Platte River, which serves Cheyenne and other Southeastern Wyoming communities.
Original plans for the project established in 2017 say the state would pay $73.6 million of the $80 million cost. The dam and reservoir would be projected to generate a similar monetary benefit from improved recreation and fishing, according to supporters of the project.
A final record of decision on the EIS is expected by May 2024, a NRCS consultant said at a January public meeting, according to WyoFile. This would include a final determination about the land swap.
Coming off a major snow year this winter, O’Toole said he is optimistic that he will receive adequate irrigation for the upcoming summer. If this proves not to be the case, he said the future looks even more bleak.
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