Dam backers seek $11M more from state

Angus M. Thuermer Jr

Water developers are seeking nearly $11 million more from state coffers to raise a dam in Big Horn County while absolving irrigators of any additional costs for the $88.9 million project.
The Legislature’s Select Water Committee on Wednesday recommended the state appropriate an additional $10.8 million for the Upper Leavitt Reservoir expansion, plus another $20 million for a dam-construction contingency fund.
The cost for raising the height of the Upper Leavitt Reservoir embankment is now budgeted at $88.9 million — more than double the $39.8 million price estimated in 2015. The Select Water Committee will seek that increase in the 2024 legislative budget session that begins Feb. 12.
The committee rejected a suggestion that irrigators also pony up more money.
The enlarged reservoir would belong to and serve the Shell Irrigation District, increasing storage 10 times to 6,604 acre feet. The 1,800-foot-long dam would be 96 feet high, and the state would pay for more than 98% of its cost.
In addition to the nearly $11 million appropriation, the committee added another $20 million to a dam construction contingency fund to cover unexpected Leavitt costs and those for the Middle Piney Dam, a Sublette County project that’s being constructed on a landslide.
Wyoming Water Development Office Director Jason Mead said Shell irrigators in 2015 set a limit on their contributions.
“The affordability and willingness to pay of the sponsor is based on a $25 per acre-foot cost assessment to their users, and we’ve tried to stick to that,” he told the committee.
Soaring inflation,
higher costs
“Unprecedented inflation and higher-than-expected construction costs” contributed to the project’s increase, Mead told the committee in a report. The irrigation district in Big Horn County would own and maintain the structure.
The higher dam would create a pool covering 194 acres and provide late-season irrigation to some of the 13,143 acres of agricultural land nearby. It would create 34 new acres of wetlands, according to proponents.
Committee co-chair Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) said the request for state money “is a pretty big ask.
“Have you talked about a little bit more of the burden shifting toward the [irrigation] district — at least some of it — because it’s a lot of money?” she asked.
Mead said polling of irrigators almost a decade ago indicated they were willing to assess only so much.
“That’s how they came up with the $25 per acre-foot,” he said. “They would have to go back to the drawing board to figure out ‘would everybody be willing to … pay an assessment of $30 or $35.’”
He explained the arrangement in an email to WyoFile after the meeting. “The Shell Valley [Watershed Improvement District] offered shares to their members,” he wrote. “Each share is 1 acre-foot. The shareholder would be required to pay into the District each year that $25/AF, regardless of whether they use their water in a given year or not.”
Mead told committee members irrigation district representatives were present to answer questions, but committee members shifted the subject to the water rights in the reservoir’s designated conservation pool. Shell irrigators were never called to answer Steinmetz’s query.
Because the state will pay for so much of the project, committee members asked whether Wyoming should own the dam and reservoir to ensure the state investment is properly maintained. Mead said the irrigation district would likely be responsible.
“It’s a high-hazard structure, and if they don’t maintain it, then it’s their liability if something goes wrong,” he told the committee. “So that’s a pretty good incentive, in my opinion, to keep it operating and maintained to the best of their ability.”