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Bill Sniffin: Everybody Wants Wyoming Water; How Do We Keep Colorado From Stealing It?

in Column/Bill Sniffin
Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images

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By Bill Sniffin, publisher emeritus

In Wyoming, whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.

Never has that old saying been more fitting than today.  

Worldwide, the next great shortage crisis will involve water. And Wyoming has an abundance of water.

Our most important unclaimed water resource is the ample Green River, which streams down from its headwaters in the Wind River Mountains near Dubois. It flows down the western side of the state exiting the state in the 91-mile long Flaming Gorge Reservoir south of Green River.

Since 2002, the biggest threat to Wyoming water stored in huge amounts at Flaming Gorge has been posed by a Fort Collins entrepreneur. 

Aaron Million lusts after that water and has promoted plans upon plans to get it to the Front Range of Colorado.

For years, he touted a pipeline that would run across southern Wyoming. A tiny amount of the water would have been allocated to Cheyenne and Torrington. Despite that token gesture, the project was fought hard by just about everyone in Wyoming. A survey on the project once showed 79 percent of Wyomingites opposed it.

Recently, Million has proposed moving the project to Utah, but officials in that state have also spurned his efforts.

And even more recently, he proposed his project as an energy generation project, similar to hydropower projects across many western states.  No takers on that plan yet, either.

The guy dreamed up the project while doing a thesis at the University of Colorado. He deserves credit for his persistence. His well-heeled backers appear to keep paying him with the remote hope that someday the project will work its way through all the regulatory hurdles and divert Wyoming water to Colorado.

Million seemingly rolls his eyes at the opposition to his project. He claims it would only use 1% of the water in the Green River. Skeptics disagree.

Historically, the Colorado River compact was flawed. Seven states, including Wyoming, tried in 1922 to divide up the water that flows down that river. The biggest single tributary flowing into the Colorado is the Green River. It joins the Colorado near Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

When they divvied up the water rights, officials from the states had no way of knowing that they were emerging from some very wet decades and entering dry times. 

Especially in recent times, when population growth has been been high and precipitation levels have been low, a crisis has loomed. States like Colorado want the water that was allocated to them. Hence, the efforts to harness water currently flowing in the Green River and stored in Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Other states in the compact were Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Other canal projects come to mind. After almost 50 years of effort, the Central Arizona Project now drains billions of gallons of water away from the Colorado River to keep golf courses in Phoenix green.

Although most of the unallocated water is located in Wyoming, Colorado is the thirstiest place north of Las Vegas, which draws its water from the over-allocated Lake Mead.  Lake Mead is the biggest reservoir in the United States but its water levels are dropping at an alarming rate. It now contains less water than when it was first filled. 

Super strict water restrictions in Sin City have resulted in a city with few green lawns. Yards everywhere are landscaped desert designs and cactus gardens.

Back in Colorado, some 80% of the people live east of the continental divide and 80 percent of its water is west of the divide. The state was been a model of water creativity, especially with trans-basin movement of water. In some cases, it even involves tunnels through mountains crossing under the divide.

Today Colorado leaders are aghast because Nebraska is proposing a new canal to draw water from its South Platte River. This 500-mile project would take water away from the already parched Front Range but the plan is legal based on long ago regional water compacts. 

Nebraska officials are smug about their chances while Colorado officials are apoplectic about the very mention of them losing any more water.

An underground lake? In Greeley, city leaders are working on a project where they would store water in an aquifer, which is similar to a lake – except it is underground.

Called the Terry Ranch project, it is located under 10,000 acres of land near Carr, Colorado, just south of Cheyenne. It would reportedly hold 1.2 million acre-feet of water. This is almost 50 times more water than what is being used now by Greeley. Now, that is an example of some real creativity.

Meanwhile, this is not the end of water squabbles between states in this region. As temperatures continue to soar and rain and snow totals drop, the only thing guaranteed to happen will be future battles over this limited natural liquid resource.

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Low Streamflows Have Northwest Wyo Water Users On Edge

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Just a couple of weeks ago, the south fork of the Shoshone River in northwest Wyoming was fast-moving and full of water.

Today, there’s just a trickle.

The Shoshone River provides water for more than just agriculture, although that’s the reason Buffalo Bill Cody and his partners designed the region’s irrigation system over 100 years ago. Recreational fishing and boating are also big draws for visitors, which boosts the economy in a state in which tourism is the No. 2 industry. 

Tim Wade, a fishing guide in Cody for 37 years, said because this year’s summer temperatures rose quickly, the snow built up in the surrounding mountains has already melted flowed out of the area. The result is exposed dry creek beds that shouldn’t be seen this early in the summer.

“All of our rivers and streams are dependent on snowpack,” Wade said. “And we don’t have snowpack any more. Everything blew out early, came out in May, and June runoff was over by mid-June. Usually it’s over by the second week of July. And it’s been hot, which hasn’t helped the snowpack.” 

Wade said the water levels and the heat are a concern for those involved in recreational fishing, which is a big draw for tourists coming to this area.

“We’re keeping an eye on our fisheries, to make sure that the fisheries stay healthy on our guided trips and things like that,” he said. “We’ve not experienced severe water temperature increases, like other states are saying, there are some tail waters in the state that are a little warm in northwest Wyoming. But not the ones through Cody.”

Although the low water level is a problem for people who are relying on that stream flow from the mountains, the situation isn’t as dire for people who utilize water below a dam.

Layton Blanchard is the manager of Wyoming River Trips, a family owned business that has been guiding float trips down the Shoshone for over 40 years. Blanchard said when they’ve seen low water years like this before, they’ve modified their river trips to stay below the Buffalo Bill Dam.

“Below the dam, we’ve been able to kind of maintain a pretty consistent flow,” Blanchard said. “The water has been low, but it hasn’t dipped below a flow that’s runnable for us still, for it to be enjoyable for everyone.”

Blanchard noted that trips upstream of the Buffalo Bill Dam were cut short this year.

“We do full day trips up there that usually last into the first few weeks of July,” he said. “And this year, I think we barely made it to the last week of June, just because it has gotten so low. And you know, those rock exposure and things like that.”

Wade said the dam does protect fisheries by keeping water levels higher, which helps keep temperatures lower.

“The lower Shoshone is about 46 degrees coming out of the dam. And by the time it gets down to Willwood, I think it’s still in the low 60s, which is tolerable for our trout,” he said.

It’s a better situation in northwestern Wyoming, he said, than in Montana or in Yellowstone. Last week, biologists there implemented a ban on fishing in rivers and streams after 2 p.m. as the heat makes it difficult for fish to recover once they’ve been caught and released.

And Wade says his company is adapting to make sure that people who travel here to fish aren’t disappointed.

We are changing our destinations for the float trips,” he said. “And we’re keeping those on waters where the water temperatures are low.” 

The agriculture industry is seeing the need to make changes, as well, to adapt to the current situation. One irrigation district in Park County has asked water users to be patient, as there is currently insufficient water available to meet everyone’s needs.

“With the extreme heat and less-than-average snowpack, water flows in the South Fork of the Shoshone have rapidly decreased,” said a Facebook post from the Lakeview Irrigation District. “Water levels continue to fluctuate greatly over a 24-hour period at the diversion. If you are currently watering, please be quick and efficient with  the water so that it can be sent to the next user. With current conditions, it is unlikely that we will be able to meet everyone’s needs but will do the most with the available water.”

Wade said while this year is a tough one for water flows, it’s not the first time it’s happened in recent years.

“It’s not our first low water year, we seem to go through this about every four or five years in Wyoming,” he said. “1996 was a much lower water year than this year. 2004 was close. And 1988, the year of the fires, was historically low. So we might be setting some record heat temperatures, but we’re not anywhere close to any record low flows.”

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Gordon Slams Move To Revise Trump’s Water Rules

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A move to reverse federal water rules put in place by former President Donald Trump is being criticized by Gov. Mark Gordon.

Gordon on Thursday said he was disturbed to learn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to reverse the Trump administration’s “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” which defined which bodies of water are under federal control and which are under state control.

“It is frustrating and deeply disturbing to see that the agencies are yet again pivoting, without any consultation with the governors, on a very important matter governing the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction,” he said in a statement. “I see no need to revisit the rulemaking and am happy with where the rule currently stands.”

The Trump administration in 2020 approved the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” which was designed to provide protection from pollution for the nation’s waters while allowing economic growth.

The rule was seen as a way to solve confusion over whether certain waters, such as wetlands, were subject to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act.

On Wednesday, the EPA announced it would work with the Corps of Engineers to revise the definitions again to provide needed protection to the country’s water.

The EPA said the old rule was leading to “significant environmental degradation” and added it would seek “input from a wide array of stakeholders” to develop rules to better protect the nation’s waters.

Jaime Pinkham, acting secretary of the Army for Civil Works, said the Navigable Waters Protection Rule has resulted in a drop in the amount of water to be afforded federal protection by 25 percentage points.

But Gordon said the rule changes are being proposed without the input of the states, who are also responsible for water quality.

“I also want to remind the agencies that states are co-regulators of our waters,” he said. “The EPA and the Corps should tap into our expertise and approach us cooperatively as the agency continues its review.”

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Water flows through irrigation canal again

in News/Agriculture

Water has returned to the Goshen Irrigation District canal that was breached in mid-July, leaving more than 100,000 acres of land without water.

The Goshen Irrigation District began running water down the Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal, which serves farmers in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska.

A 100-year-old tunnel on the canal collapsed on July 17, backing up water behind the collapse and causing a breach in the canal.

Crews worked for more than a month to repair the tunnel and canal before releasing water the canal on Aug. 28. Since then, the irrigation district has been slowly increasing flows through the canal, said Manager Rob Posten.

“We have just been bumping it up slow and taking it easy and trying to monitor thing and trying not to do something stupid and wash out what we got done,” he said.

Repair costs are estimated at around $4 million and Posten said there is some thought being give to making more extensive repairs to the tunnels and canals at a cost of up to $10 million.

As reported by Cowboy State Daily, in August the U.S. Department of Agriculture affirmed that farmers who had purchased insurance against crop damage would be able to seek some compensation for damages caused by the canal’s breach.

But Cactus Covello of Points West Community Bank said not all the farmers will be fully compensated for losses to their bean, sugar beet, corn and hay crops.

Go deeper: Irrigation canal repairs nearly complete, Goshen County to turn water back on

“There’s going to be a monetary damage to all those farmers that count on those crops to make their payments and for their livelihood,” he said.

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