Wyoming’s efforts to build a 280-foot-high dam above the Little Snake River near the border of Colorado are “picking … back up,” after backers received a $1.2 million federal grant, the director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission said last week.

The funds, to be matched by Wyoming, will help consultants prepare federal environmental reviews. Planned for the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County, the estimated $82 million dam and 10,000-acre-foot reservoir would be constructed in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

The dam on the tributary of the Little Snake River would serve 67 to 100 irrigators by providing late-season water. Irrigators are unable to finance the project, so 91% of the costs would be borne by Wyoming, a formula backers say is justified because the structure would produce $73.7 million in public benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service in 2019 approved a $1.25 million grant to the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District and the neighboring Colorado Pothook Water Conservancy District to boost the project, according to federal records. The grant requires a matching contribution.

“It became a little bit dormant for a while,” Water Development Office Director Brandon Gebhart told members of the state water commission Thursday as he described the project. The grant will help consultants decide whether to pursue a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service or try to construct and operate the facility through permits.

The project faced scrutiny and criticism in the Legislature in 2018 when backers sought $40 million in construction funds. Lawmakers appropriated only $4.7 million, requiring none of the money be spent until two conditions were met.

One was securing “additional funding commitments from project beneficiaries in both Wyoming and Colorado on a pro-rata basis.” The second string the legislature attached required legislative approval before any of the 2018 appropriation be spent.

Water director Gebhart acknowledged the 2018 legislative caveats. “We’re being diligent to ensure that the work that we do … follows statutory limitations we may have,” he said.

In addition to the $4.7 million 2018 appropriation, the West Fork account had some $6 million already appropriated in 2013, for a total of $10.9 million. The earlier appropriation did not include requirements for cost sharing with Colorado or for further legislative approval.

“The work we’re continuing is under this 2013 appropriation,” Gebhart told commissioners. “We’re progressing with the prior appropriation and using the statute language in that to move on.”

Lawmakers became wary of the dam project because of its cost, its location and the small number of Wyoming irrigators it would serve. Critics said it would only irrigate an additional 2,000 acres or so.

“It’s just pork,” William “Jeb” Steward, an Encampment resident and former state representative, said in 2017.

Dormancy has not diminished Wyoming’s imagined support for building the dam.

A Feb. 24 memo to commission members described Wyoming’s historic engagement with Colorado officials but with a contemporary revision. “All entities expressed support for additional storage in the Little Snake/Yampa River drainages and support for the West Fork project,” the memo reads.

But that statement mischaracterizes Colorado’s position, said Cody Perry, vice president of Friends of the Yampa. The Little Snake River flows along the Wyoming/Colorado border and into the Yampa, a tributary of the Green River.

Wyoming tried to get the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to endorse the project in 2018. But that group would not sign a proposed letter backing the dam and reservoir.

Instead, the Roundtable said it would need to see the dam proposal “in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”

“The [Roundtable] membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration…” the Colorado group’s letter stated.

Three members of the Colorado roundtable said the group’s position has not changed since 2018.

The Wyoming and Colorado conservancy districts, plus the state’s consultant and NEPA liaison, are meeting with federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service, “trying to pick the best path forward,” Gebhart said. Federal agencies this week did not respond with updates.

Some West Fork Dam supporters want a land exchange, believing such a deal would exempt the project from some aspects of the demanding NEPA process, likely making it easier to accomplish.

The Water Development Commission last week extended a planning contract for the project through the end of 2022. It had been set to expire June 30, 2021.

“Due to the COVID last year, we’re a little behind,” Bob Davis, a member of the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District Board, told commission members. “We’re trying to catch gears and get caught up and have a very busy summer with this NEPA process.”

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