Volume 105, Number 8 - February 21, 2008
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Upper Green water storage debated
The long-awaited public meetings over water storage on the Upper Green River have been put on hold until at least the fall, said Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) Director Mike Purcell.
In the meantime, the WWDC will pursue an intensive study exploring alternative water storage sites in the Green River Basin in hopes of finding a more realistic site than the controversial one proposed between the Warren and Kendall bridges on the main stem of the Green River.
“What we’re looking for is whether these (alternate sites) are feasible or not, from cost to technical basis,” Purcell said. “We don’t really know how many will be presented as feasible at the public meetings.”
The study will investigate five to 10 offchannel and tributary storage sites in the Upper Green River Basin, and will include hydrological analyses, geotechnical reviews and estimates of how much land would be served.
The WWDC will make a final decision on the reservoir site after hearing public opinion on the potential sites at the meetings, which will likely be held this September in Sublette, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties. Under various interstate river compacts and court decrees, Wyoming is entitled to consume about 4 million acre feet of its surface water a year. Right now, the state uses about 2.8 million. None of that is tapped from the Green River, though Wyoming does have water rights to the river.
Any water storage project in the area will likely exceed the WWDC’s budget, Purcell acknowledged, and one of the driving purposes behind the public meetings is to find potential partners in the agricultural or recreation industries to help with financing.
But impounding tributaries will require excessive construction costs only to store significantly less water than a site on the main stem of the river, insisted Randy Bolgiano, member of the Upper Green River Joint Powers Board.
“If you think about it the way a beaver thinks about it, the narrow site above the Warren Bridge in terms of geography is much more cost effective,” Bolgiano said of the natural buttress around the river at that section. “The good lord put it all there except for the spillway.”
Tributary sites would require large impoundment structures and would be located at lower elevation levels where more evaporation would occur, Bolgiano said.
Past WWDC studies revealed that the site between the Warren and Kendall bridges would provide 71,000 acres of water storage, and supply much-needed water to accommodate the population surge in Sublette County from the energy boom, as well as support local agricultural and ranching needs.
Even the Sublette County Commissioners passed a resolution supporting water storage “at high elevation” on the main stem on Dec. 18, after Bolgiano presented his opinion of the issue.
Commissioner Bill Cramer said he didn’t know enough about the proposed project to comment, and that the commissioners had simply trusted Bolgiano’s advice.
Yet Purcell said that water storage on the main stem of the river, which has been debated for the past 50 years, requires just too much trouble to ever happen.
The WWDC determined the project would cost between $250 million and $400 million. Dispersing the water to surrounding landowners would entail constructing 135 miles of canals, and 10 to 15,000 feet of tunnels. Conflicts with in-stream flow rights might also prevent the WWDC from obtaining a federal construction permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct the project.
A reservoir on the main stem would also flood surrounding wetlands and inhibit native cutthroat trout migration to tributaries of the river, said Cory Toyl, Wyoming water projects manager for Trout Unlimited. “(Trout Unlimited) is against (the main stem site) because there’s no way to properly mitigate the substantial long-and-short-term impacts it would have on the fish population,” Toyl said. “We think there are other options before main stem dams such as this.” But it’s only a matter of time before water demands will outweigh all other concerns, Bolgiano said.
Permitting for the main stem site might prove difficult, he added, but tributary impoundments would pose their own problems, as many tributaries are located on private land and would require landowners to grant public access on their property. The main stem site is located on BLM land.
Bolgiano also suggested that Wyoming taxpayers pitch in to preserve water storage in their state.
“I think if people recognize that their stake in this place, whether they’re small homeowners or big ranch owners, is tied up in the fact that (the main stem site) is an oasis in the middle of the high desert, that will encourage them to maintain it,” he said.
Dan Budd, who represents Sublette County on the WWDC, said he’s sure that members of the agricultural industry will contribute what they can to the project, as they are the main stakeholders in water storage. “I’ve talked to a lot of people, and when I ask, ‘what do you think about Wyoming protecting its water?’ Without exception, they all say that it’s critical,” Budd said.
Whether the water storage site ends up on the main stem or a tributary of the Green River, Budd supports it. He’s most concerned with filing priority water rights on the chosen site before other states try to make a call on it, he said, especially in lieu of recent studies that predict that in the next 13 years, climate change and strong demand will completely drain lakes Mead and Powell, which help provide water for more than 25 million people in seven states.
“I’d rather see water developed in Wyoming, than to flow down and be controlled by the lower basin states,” Budd said.
“Whoever controls the water controls everything.”
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