Details, fears emerge during Northwest Colorado forum concerning proposed reservoir in southern Wyoming
As officials representing federal and Wyoming state agencies answer questions and collect public comments for a proposed reservoir in southern Wyoming, a forum this week in Craig revealed fears over aridification, human traffic, effects on wildlife and more.
An overview of the proposed West Fork Battle Creek Reservoir project details how it could produce a 10,000 acre-feet water storage volume, broken up into a few different pools. As proposed, the project would create a 6,500 acre-feet pool for supplemental irrigation water, a 1,500 acre-feet bypass habitat pool and a 2,000 acre-feet conservation pool.
The reservoir would be formed by a roller-compacted concrete dam approximately 250 feet high and 800 feet long about 19 miles west of Encampment, Wyoming, and 28 miles east of Baggs, Wyoming. As envisioned, it would provide for rural agricultural management, as the area has experienced substantial water shortages.
According to the proposal, during the driest four out of 10 years, irrigators were short between 2,800 acre-feet and 20,000 acre-feet with an average of 9,300 acre-feet annually. The primary purpose of the watershed plan is to provide late-season irrigation water and reduce shortages in the Little Snake River Basin during dry years. The basin spans Wyoming and Northwest Colorado, but state officials are not sure exactly how many irrigators might benefit from the project.
For its part, officials at the Natural Resources Conservation Service must decide whether to provide financial assistance to implement the West Fork-Battle Creek Watershed Plan environmental impact statement, which is one necessary step before the proposal can become a reality.
The land ownership overlaps private, state and U.S. Forest Service lands, and if the Forest Service finds the proposal agreeable, the federal agency could work as a cooperator and participate in a land swap requested by the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, which is pursuing the project.
The Forest Service uses land exchanges to implement its land resource management plans, optimize land ownership patterns, protect natural resources and meet the needs of the American people. If the reservoir were constructed as proposed, the land exchange would eliminate the need for a special-use permit through the Forest Service.
The exchange would involve the state acquiring federal land at the site of the proposed reservoir on the West Fork of Battle Creek near Wyoming Highway 70 in Carbon County. At the same time, state lands scattered across the Sierra Madre range would be conveyed to the federal government in return. This would be an equal-value exchange, so the appraisal of the federal parcel would have to be equivalent to the state lands conveyed. As a result, all of the currently identified state lands might not be involved in the exchange.
Tuesday’s forum in Craig was offered in person and through a virtual format as snow fouled up some people’s travel plans.
During public comments and the Q&A, a man whose ranch exists next to the proposed reservoir asked a handful of questions, including some about potential recreation facilities. The rancher said he would expect a boat ramp and picnic facilities to accompany a new reservoir, but he worries about a large campground being part of the project.
“If a large campground were to go in there, I sure would like to make sure the state does a very thorough analysis on the impact in the area,” the rancher said. “I’m concerned about more human traffic in that area, not only infringing on the wilderness, but also on my ranch.”
Jason Meade with Wyoming Water Development Office responded that there are only a handful of amenities that have been covered in terms of recreational facilities, and he mentioned a parking lot, toilet, trash can and a couple of picnic tables.
“At this point, there hasn’t been any plans for campgrounds,” Meade said.
In followup questions, the rancher asked if there would be a study to forecast potential effects on wildlife, given that the project is so close to the Huston Park Wilderness area. Meade assured him there would be an “across the board” biological study covering the reservoir’s potential impact on organisms like plants, wildlife, fish and birds.
Another commenter questioned whether the reservoir would help local farmers weather droughts, especially since so many experts have described the situation across the West as “aridification.”
“It’s not a drought,” one man said. “My question is have you considered the long-term aridification instead of the short-term drought, which will not turn around? … With a reservoir, you are going to increase the surface area of evaporation, so it’s working against itself.
“It seems like some other ideas maybe are to think about changing the species of the crop to reduce the water need so these ranchers can survive. Because in the end, as we aridify more, they’re not going to make it, and we want to keep that community going. But this may not help them.”
Another individual asked what might happen to any associated grazing rights if the state lands are traded to the Forest Service.
“It’s important to note … that we’re in the very beginning stages of this transaction,” replied Jason Crowder, deputy director for the Office of State Lands and Investments.
“We’ve submitted a proposal to the Forest Service to see if there is a transaction to be had here,” he continued. “We don’t have anything finalized. Obviously, there is a lot of analysis, a lot of conversations and a lot of work that needs to go into this process before it gains any legs.”
Crowder said the agency hasn’t done any concrete work other than to identify state lands that were close to or within wilderness areas for a potential exchange with the Forest Service. He explained that state officials have not yet investigated all the attributes of these lands such as existing leases or their income generating potential.
“That’s all to come,” Crowder said as he detailed how the process would play out in the coming months.
The 45-day public comment period started Dec. 28 and will close Feb. 13. All comments will need to be received by the deadline for consideration. Comments can be submitted online, and similar forums were held Wednesday, Jan. 11, in Baggs, Wyoming, and Thursday, Jan. 12, in Saratoga, Wyoming.
Forum organizers said comments should be as specific as possible. They can provide new information about the proposed action or analysis, identify different ways to meet the need, suggest alternatives beyond the proposed action, correct factual inaccuracies or identify different sources of credible research pertinent to the proposal.
For more about the project, go to FS.USDA.Gov/Project/?project=63355. To offer comments or objections, go to the federal eRulemaking portal at Regulations.gov. From there, search for docket ID “NRCS-2022-0012.”
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