On March 31, the Wyoming Senate passed House Bill 198 on its third reading, meaning that the bill has been officially approved by the state legislature.
House Bill 198 grants the University of Wyoming the right to develop, drill, construct, operate, maintain and use any water line, system, well or works on property owned by the university. It also states that no city or county can restrict or prohibit the university from developing, drilling, constructing, operating, maintaining or using any water system independent of the city’s or county’s water system.
It was initially introduced to and voted on by the House Appropriations Committee on March 11. Since its introduction, the City of Laramie has been vehemently opposed to the bill, arguing that it gives UW unreasonable and unprecedented control over the water supply for the city.
“By enacting HB0198, the Legislature would serve as an accomplice to the University’s bold and hostile move against Laramie rate payers,” City Manager Janine Jordan wrote in a letter to the state legislature on March 12. It goes on the explain that House Bill 198 grants unfair special treatment to UW, and will require the city to spend over a million dollars of Laramie taxpayer dollars to re-drill its wells into the Casper Aquifer and go through the legal procedures to prove groundwater interference with its senior water rights.
The letter goes on to cite legal precedent that grants municipalities authority to make decisions and ordinances for the protection of their water supplies. The City of Laramie has published this letter, along with supplemental information, to the city website.
“Last year, we adopted an ordinance that prevents the use of non-municipal water within Laramie’s corporate limits without a franchise or permit granted by the City Council,” Jordan wrote in the March 12 letter. She added that this ordinance is comparable to ordinances in other Wyoming municipalities, including Gillette, Riverton, Jackson, and Alpine.
During a March 16 city council session, Councilmember Erin O’Doherty (Ward 3) noted that this bill would not just affect the water systems of Laramie. She pointed out that UW owns property throughout the entire state, and this piece of legislation would apply to any property owned by the university. The language of the bill grants UW the power to build their own water systems in any of the communities in which it owns property.
UW RESPONDS TO CITY CONCERNSIn an op-ed letter to the Boomerang, Bill Mai, acting vice president for UW governmental relations, countered Jordan’s arguments about a municipality’s ability to pass ordinances regulating water supply.
“UW has the ability under Wyoming law to permit and appropriate water,” Mai wrote. He also added that the University has no plans to create its own potable (drinkable) water system for the Laramie campus. Indeed, an adopted amendment to House Bill 198 made it so that the water systems can only deliver non-potable (irrigation) water. He also stated that the State Engineering Office analyzed the UW wells during a permitting process, and addressed all concerns regarding the impact to the Casper Aquifer.
During the March 11 House Appropriations Committee’s hearing of House Bill 198, registered lobbyist, Patrick Crank, spoke on behalf of UW. Crank stated that he believes that UW is a “super state agency” that derives its power from the Wyoming Constitution. Therefore, he argued that the university has greater authority and dominion over their affairs than other state agencies, and has far superior authority than cities, towns, and counties.
AMENDMENTS & VOTING BREAKDOWNSeveral amendments were introduced for House Bill 198, most of which failed.
Two adopted amendments included changing the bill from including potable and non-potable water, to just non-potable water. The second adopted amendment added language that stated that UW can develop their own non-potable water system for “miscellaneous use where water is to be used for landscape watering, lawns, athletic fields, trees, shrubs and flowers.”
Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Albany County) introduced an amendment requiring the University to pay $50,000 to the City of Laramie each year for five years, which failed. Rep. Trey Sherwood (D-Albany County) introduced an amendment that would require UW to obtain a signed use agreement from the city or county if the University’s water system would interfere or affect an easement or right of way owned by the city or council. This amendment failed.
John Bear (R-Campbell County) attempted to pass an amendment that would have effectively changed the entire nature of the bill.
Instead of granting UW permission to develop, drill, construct, operate and maintain its own non-potable water systems, the amendment would have required the University to do a study and report on the necessity of the University to facilitate the independent distribution of its non-potable water, as well as the anticipated savings by the University to independently operate this water system.
It would have also required UW to present information about the impact of the water supply to the City of Laramie, and the estimate costs to the state for a groundwater interference study. This amendment also failed.
House Bill 198 narrowly passed the Wyoming House with a vote of 32-27-1. Local elected officials who voted in favor of the bill were Reps. Ocean Andrew (R-Albany County) and Jerry Paxton (R-Carbon, Albany, Sweetwater Counties). Local representatives who voted against the bill include Reps. Cathy Connolly (D-Albany County), Karlee Provenza (D-Albany County), and Trey Sherwood (D-Albany County).
When it reached the Senate floor, House Bill 198 passed easily with a 21-9 vote. Local Senators who voted in favor of the bill include Sens. Dan Furphy (R-Albany County), and Chris Rothfuss (D-Albany County). Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Albany, Carbon, Sweetwater Counties) voted against the bill.
For more in-depth background on this issue, the Boomerang published an article on March 24 that lays out the issue in more detail.