By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com
Federal authorities have set a Feb. 13 deadline for comments on a proposal to build a 264-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Carbon County.
The proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir would impound 6,500 acre-feet of irrigation storage in the Little Snake River Valley and parts of Colorado. Another 1,500 acre-feet would maintain a “minimum bypass flow” into Battle Creek and the Little Snake, Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers downstream.
Officials announced the deadline in the Federal Register on Dec. 28 where they said they would accept written comments for 45 days. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has scheduled three public meetings Jan. 10-12 in communities in the impacted region.
The meetings are not designed as forums at which officials will accept public comment, Aaron Voos, a spokesman for the Medicine Bow said. Officials will use them to explain plans for construction of the proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir and the parallel Forest Service examination of a land exchange that would enable the project.
The dam would cost some $80 million, according to a 2017 estimate, and the state would pay $73.6 million of that, original plans state. The dam and reservoir would generate an estimated $73.3 million in public benefits such as recreation and fishing, according to developers. Those benefits allow the state to reduce the amount irrigators would have to contribute, according to documents outlining the plan.
The proposal to impound more water in the Colorado River Basin and extract it from waterways for “increased pasture and hay production” comes at a time when seven Western states and Mexico are at odds over who can use what water in the overtaxed system. Even though officials are struggling to maintain water levels in Lake Powell, Wyoming believes it has the right to construct the reservoir and use flows from the basin’s network of waterways.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will prepare an environmental impact statement analyzing six alternatives, including no-action and an option that would use “alternate means such as … water conservation projects and habitat improvement projects” to achieve watershed-plan goals.
At the same time, the Medicine Bow will consider comments on Wyoming’s proposal for a 6,282-acre land swap that would “eliminate the need for a special use permit” for the dam and reservoir, according to the public notice.
“These are two parallel processes,” Voos said. The Forest Service will participate in the EIS while conducting its own feasibility study.
“That [feasibility study] produces a public-interest determination, which says ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ this land exchange process is in the best interest of the American public,” Voos said.
Originally proposed at 280 feet, the Federal Register notice now puts the estimated dam height at 264 feet. Promoted by the Wyoming Water Development Office and Commission, the proposed impoundment near the confluence of the West Fork of Battle and Haggarty creeks would benefit irrigators in the Savery-Little Snake River and Pothook Water Conservancy Districts in Wyoming and Colorado.
Irrigation diversions would benefit between 67-100 irrigators, leading to funding debates in the Wyoming Legislature. Dam supporters point to ancillary benefits, including recreation and a boon to fisheries and wetlands.
The upcoming meetings for the evenings of Jan 10, 11 and 12 will take place in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga, respectively. They will help determine the scope of the analysis, according to the Federal Register.Those wishing to comment before the Feb. 13 deadline can do so through an online portal, by post or hand-delivery to Andi Neugebauer, Wyoming State Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, 100 E B St. #3, Casper, Wyoming 82601. Specify the docket ID NRCS-2022-0012 in hard-copy comments to Neugebauer.