CHEYENNE – Lawmakers appropriated $24.3 million for water development, earmarking significant funding to rebuild the old and suspect LaPrele Dam above Douglas and repair a domestic water line to Midwest and Edgerton.
The Wyoming House and Senate both approved two water bills last week despite questions over cloud seeding and whether the state should prioritize water development over other crucial needs amid the ongoing budget crisis. Much of the money, some of which will be spent over several years, will upgrade aging water infrastructure.
In the largest appropriations, lawmakers earmarked grants of $4.3 million to study replacement of the unconventional and suspect Ambursen-style LaPrele Dam and $7.3 million to rehabilitate the Salt Creek water line to Midwest and Edgerton north of Casper.
Underscoring the need to repair aging infrastructure, one provision in the bills would transfer $7.5 million from a planning to a rehabilitation account to help fund the LaPrele reconstruction. The 137-foot high, 325-foot long dam, finished in 1909, may be the poster child for suspect, aging infrastructure.
LaPrele Dam held 20,000 acre-feet for an irrigation district before operators restricted storage because of safety worries. The $4.3 million allocation would help find a replacement for the unusual buttressed concrete-wall construction that blocks a canyon on LaPrele Creek above Ayres Natural Bridge Park, Interstate 25 and the city of Douglas 27 miles away.
The Water Development Office favors building a new dam downstream at an estimated cost of $50-$80 million, according to the Glenrock Independent.
“That’s a very good example of aging infrastructure the U.S. is facing across the board,” Water Development Office Director Brandon Gebhart told WyoFile. “Aging infrastructure is coming to our doorstep. Rehabilitation is becoming more and more prevalent.”
Another big-ticket item addresses aging infrastructure and a lack of maintenance in an oilfield boom community north of Casper that’s gone bust. The bills would grant $7.3 million to the towns of Midwest and Edgerton, two Teapot Dome-Salt Creek oilfield communities that rely on a 45-mile water line.
Midwest and Edgerton were home to a combined 1,500 people in 1980, but by 2010, only 600 lived there. There’s no good water to be found in the area, according to a consultant.
The towns built their transmission line in 1996, didn’t maintain it well and corrosive soils have eaten at it. The line connects to the Central Wyoming Regional Water System at Bar Nunn, which draws water from the North Platte River.
Until it recently failed, part of the towns’ water system operated on a Windows 95 program and a dial-up modem, consultants wrote. Now operators manipulate valves manually. Water meters are plagued by freezing, poorly insulated pits and neglect.
Water spends 20 days in the system before reaching the user, degrading quality with “disinfectant residues and byproduct residuals,” the consultant wrote. As recently as 2017, Edgerton violated a water-quality rule limiting coliform bacteria.
Edgerton must monitor for impacts from its system’s asbestos-cement pipes.
The grant would amount to approximately $12,166 per resident. Those residents’ water bills could double from about $50 a month.
Cloud seeding miasma
Both chambers passed the water-planning and water-construction bills overwhelmingly but not before lawmakers reiterated skepticism of the $943,000 allocated to cloud seeding over the Medicine Bow, Sierra Madre, Laramie and Wind River mountains.
One skeptic, Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland) recalled how Lawmakers in 2015 added $1.4 million for cloud seeding to water appropriations even though the state’s Water Development Commission had excluded it from a funding bill. He cited a “poor correlation of statistical data,” in studies about the effectiveness of cloud seeding.
“Has there been a new report to show there’s some sort of correlation to funds?” he asked.
Cloud seeding is accomplished when chemicals, frequently silver iodide, are released into the atmosphere when conditions are ripe. Planes spread the chemicals over U.S. Forest Service land, including wilderness areas, in the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre. Ground generators target the Wind River Range and Bridger Wilderness. Water molecules bond to the chemicals and fall as snowflakes.
Cloud seeding augments precipitation by “a generous amount” — 14% to 16%, Rep. John Eklund (R-Cheyenne) said. Eklund was a member of the Select Water Committee in 2020 when the 2021 water bills were drafted. Cloud seeding has kept reservoir systems “fairly full through dry years and wet years,” he said. In some instances, cloud seeding may have to be shut off “because it might cause flooding,” he said.
Rep. Dan Larusen (R-Powell) agreed. “The studies have shown the snowpack will increase an estimated 10%, which is a lot when you spread it over the number of acres there,” he said. Costing an estimated $11 to $22 per acre foot, “it’s very cheap water to be gained by the state,” he said.
If Wyoming doesn’t supply a share of runoff into the Colorado River Basin as prescribed by interstate Colorado River agreements, water use in the Green River Basin could be curtailed, the two warned. Water from the west side of the Wind River Range feeds the Green River. Snowmelt from its east side flows into the Wind River; the other three ranges generally feed the North Platte.
A 2015 scientific paper on a 6-year Wyoming pilot cloud-seeding study over the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre ranges did not estimate how much might be added to the snowpack. A subsequent analysis concluded that “the seeding impact is on the order of 1.5% of the annual precipitation,” in the two test ranges.
The legislation’s $24.3-million price tag is a fraction of the roughly $315 million Wyoming has already appropriated for water projects. The water Development Office holds those previously allocated funds in earmarked accounts and is poised to spend them. Those appropriations include $156 million for dams and reservoirs, $36 million for a rehabilitation account and $123 million that’s essentially for planning.
With the bills’ approval, water development will have about $35 million to appropriate going into next year’s biennium budget process, Gebhart told lawmakers.
Laws fund the water office annually with about $23.3 million diverted from mineral severance taxes. Because the diversion comes from the first $155 million of taxes generated annually, the arrangement isn’t threatened by declining revenues from fossil fuels.
Wyoming water development will receive that $23 million whether oil sells for $25 a barrel or $77 a barrel, Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) told a House committee. Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) told colleagues the most recent estimate put those tax revenues at $500 million a year, well above the $155 million necessary to generate the expected water office funding.
The state has a couple of dam projects under construction and “probably five or six additional projects at various levels of permitting” Gebhart told a committee. “Not many states are able to do what we’re doing,” he said.
Work is completed on the Big Sandy Dam enlargement in Sweetwater County and planning continues to enable Fontenelle Dam in Lincoln County to disgorge an additional 81,000 acre feet a year, Rep. Eklund said. Reconstruction is ongoing on the suspect Middle Piney Dam, partially located on a landslide.
Work continues on the Leavitt Reservoir expansion near Shell and the legislation extends the time that money can be spent planning the increasingly expensive Alkali Creek Dam and reservoir above Hyattville. Estimated costs there have soared from $35 million to $59 million, an increase of 69% attributed to unexpected geology and poor borrow material.
Lawmakers already appropriated millions of dollars for a contentious dam proposal on the West Fork of Battle Creek above the Little Snake River in Carbon County. The water development office did not provide an update on that project to WyoFile by press time.
“It would be a substantial reservoir if it were built,” Rep. Hans Hunt (R-Newcastle) said. Backers proposed the West Fork Dam to be 280 feet high and say it would cost $80 million and serve 100 irrigators along the Colorado border.
“There’s a lot of controversy over how much Wyoming would kick into that project … how much [it would] benefit,” Hunt said.
Lawmakers already have appropriated enough money “for the project to continue forward at least in a limited capacity,” Hunt said. The proposal “continues to bump along even though its ultimate future is seriously in question,” he said.
One representative questioned whether Wyoming should put some of its water money “to a more critical state function.”
“Can we re-appropriate funds and cut back as everyone else across the state is cutting,” Rep. Shelly Duncan (R-Lingle) said. “How can we be good stewards? Are [the projects] really necessary?”
“Water is Wyoming’s Gold,” Rep. Evan Simpson (R-Afton) said, quoting a water-conference slogan. Where the state doesn’t have water, he said, “you can see that we just have sagebrush.”
The legislation holds “a little bit of everything” from planning to construction to rehabilitation, water office director Gebhart said.
The bills appropriate $6.7 million for small water development and $3 million for rehabilitation of small projects. Lander will get about $3.2 million for a well and transmission line, another $1.4 million will go to the domestic Northwest Rural Water System in Park and Bighorn counties. The measures direct $2.8 million toward the complex North Platte River interstate irrigation and reservoir system.