From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 36 - December 1, 2005
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

North Platte takes priority

by Cat Urbigkit

Wyoming Water Development Director Mike Besson is hoping to have the final transbasin diversion study completed before the legislature starts in February, but he's not making any promises.

A higher priority at the moment is his work to draft legislation for the Pathfinder modification project. The common denominator between the two is that they both address North Platte drainage issues.

The transbasin diversion study is an internal WWDC project under Besson's direction that examines the feasibility of taking water from the Green River Basin and transporting it to the North Platte. The lower in the basin the diversion would occur, the more lift required, with its associated higher costs. Piping from Fontenelle Reservoir to the Sweetwater River has an estimated cost of $282 million, while piping from Flaming Gorge would have a price tag of about $752 million, Besson said. Each option examined by WWDC staff involves diverting 50,000-acre feet of water from the Green River drainage.

In an interview Tuesday, Besson said he hopes to have the study done before the legislature convenes, but is doubtful that will happen.

"It's going to be hard to get everything done before the start of the session," he said. "We just haven't had the time."

Besson is also doubtful that the project would fly anyway.

"We can't afford it," he said. "There would have to be awhole lot of people interested in it."

The notion of this transbasin diversion has riled western Wyoming water users every time it's been raised the past few years. Governor Dave Freudenthal has said he wouldn't support the proposal, but Besson has continued the study anyway.

Besson's priority at the moment is seeking $6 million for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and $8.5 million for the modification of Pathfinder. The modification would increase the capacity of Pathfinder Reservoir by 54,000-acre-feet to recapture storage space lost to sedimentation.

Of the 54,000-acre-feet recaptured, 34,000-acre-feet would beplaced in an "environmental" account to be operated for the benefit of endangered species and their habitat in central Nebraska. This water would have an equal 1904 priority as other reservoir uses. The water would be used to provide for Wyoming's responsibilities in a 53-mile reach of the Platte River in Nebraska that has been designated by the federal government as "critical habitat" for the whooping crane, least tern and piping plover.

The modification would be conditioned on a change of use of the stored water right, Besson explained. When Congress authorized Pathfinder, it was for power and irrigation, but that will need to be changed to include environmental and municipal uses as well, he said. Besson noted that it may take an act of Congress to authorize the change in use. The change would have to be approved by state water officials as well.

In sum, Wyoming would have to designate water for "environmental use" - a use that would occur outside the state's border. It's no small undertaking.

When questioned about environmental use being a "beneficial" use under Wyoming water law, Besson said, "No where is beneficial use of Wyoming water defined in law. Environmental use has been considered as a beneficial use by previous state engineers."

Besson said the proper tribunal for the question will be theW yoming Board of Control, on which the current state engineer, Pat Tyrrell, also serves.

Besson said his proposal follows existing state water law.

"There is no change in water law and I'm not advocating any change in Wyoming water law," he said.

Besson said earlier this year that while some might think that Wyoming's Platte River settlement obligations were the driving force behind the transbasin diversion study, this wasn't the case, although the numbers do add up.

Besson hopes to have the draft legislation for the Pathfinder project completed within the next month.

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