Technology could strengthen water use info
Cheyenne – Updating Wyoming’s technology surrounding water use, according to Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell, could solidify the state’s position in the event of challenges from downstream states.
Tyrrell underscored that idea in his agency’s recent budget requests. “We were able to get a position to start accounting for our beneficial and consumptive uses on tributaries to the Colorado River two years ago,” says Tyrrell. Governor Freudenthal recommended continuation of that position when he reviewed Tyrrell’s more recent exception budget. “While we don’t see any immediately on the horizon,” says Tyrrell of challenges over use from downstream users, “we’re behind the other three upper basin states in knowing about our water use.”
A $1.1 million request, says Tyrrell, “piggybacks” on the effort started two years ago on the Colorado River tributaries. The money, if approved by the legislature, will be used to automate 150 of the state’s stream gauges. It’s a change that allows water information to be gathered more quickly, more often and with more accuracy without driving out to the field. SEO personnel and water users could access real-time flow information on the Internet.
Tyrrell says between 70 and 80 stream gauges can now be viewed on the U.S. Geological Survey website. “You can pull up information on the upper North Platte or the Wind River at Thermopolis,” offers Tyrrell as examples. “You can see the effects of a storm. It really saves our field people a lot of time and effort traveling out to read a gauge only to find it’s broke and lose 10 days worth of data.”
$300,000 included in the SEO request would fund construction of new groundwater monitoring wells. “We’re short groundwater data in the Powder River Basin and other areas,” says Tyrrell. “We’d like to do some monitoring with additional bore holes.” USGS also does work in this area as a partnership with the SEO, but Tyrrell says growth in the federal agency’s available dollars isn’t keeping pace with the need for data.
“We’re also requesting $760,000 to scan in about 70,000 water right maps,” says Tyrrell of a project that would likely be carried out by a contractor. “The largest percentage of maps will be scanned in. A smaller portion would be digitized or rectified for placement on other maps for GIS. People would be able to retrieve information on their water rights digitally.” Information, he explains, would include your water right, the permit application and a certificate if the right has been adjudicated. Landowners would more easily be able to apply what they’re doing in terms of water management with what’s on file at the SEO.
Tyrrell’s agency will also be following the progress of three pieces of legislation this session with others likely to appear as more bills are introduced. The first, HB18, would grant rulemaking authority to the SEO in specific areas. “You might remember that a year ago I tried to get an umbrella statute,” says Tyrrell. “That fell out of favor with the concern over wells in Goshen County. There was concern the authority was too broad.”
The legislation, sponsored by the Joint Ag Committee, has since been pared back to specific areas – weather modification, temporary use permits, reservoir construction permitting and irrigation ditch construction permitting. “It makes sure we have the authority to write rules where needed,” says Tyrrell. “It doesn’t grant us any additional statutory authority.” Any rules passed must also go through Wyoming’s Administrative Procedures Act, which requires an opportunity for public comment. Tyrrell says that what is in some cases being handled as policy would instead be addressed through rules and actually enhance public participation.
“It does nothing to diminish anybody’s public access to the process,” explains Tyrrell. “In fact, it probably makes things better.” In those areas where the agency has been forced to use policies instead of rules, he says the same public vetting process isn’t required.
Authority to require the licensing of water well drillers, assigned as HB55, will again be sought this year under sponsorship from the Joint Ag Committee. Citing circuitous language in the bill passed by the legislature a year ago, Freudenthal vetoed the measure. Tyrrell says the same bill, with changes made to fix the error pointed out by the Governor, is being considered this session.
“I think the biggest question this session will be how to fund it,” says Tyrrell. “It does require a licensing specialist and contractual money for investigators.” Beyond that Tyrrell says there is the need for oversight. “We do field quite a few complaints,” he says. “Right now there’s nowhere for the public to turn. I believe we’re the only state in the lower 48 without some sort of mandatory way to oversee the drilling profession.” Tyrrell also says it’s an important step to take to protect the state’s aquifers. “Good drillers will essentially see no effect because they’re doing things right anyway.”
A third bill being tracked by Tyrrell’s agency will provide a tool to those dealing with an overabundance of water discharged during the production of coal bed natural gas. The legislation, carried by the Joint Minerals Committee, comes on the heels of two years of discussions by the Governor-appointed coal bed natural gas discharge water task force.
“There have been a couple of lawsuits that indicate companies do have the right to discharge water,” explains Tyrrell. “Stopping discharges is not going to happen, but we can manage them.”
Proposed legislation would allow Tyrrell to require construction to restore natural flow capacity. “If we get proper complaints and there is insufficient capacity, we could order the discharging operators to go through that stretch and reconstruct the natural capacity.”
Tyrrell says it’s the approach the courts are already taking and that such legislation may speed up and cheapen the process for affected landowners. “We’d be getting to the same point the courts are right now except the landowner has more say and you don’t have to involve your lawyers quite so much.” It also opens the opportunity for landowners to request that certain features be built into the stream channel, such as crossings.
“It’s the landowner community this bill is designed to help,” says Tyrrell. “There are some who wish it went further in stopping the flow, but it’s a bit of a compromise allowing those who want the water to keep it and others some protection.”
“It does make it unlawful in general to discharge more than the natural capacity of any ephemeral or intermittent channel,” he explains. “We also have a tool that we could use to ratchet back discharges to what the channel has seen historically.”
The budget and water-related legislation will be decided at the upcoming Budget Session of the Wyoming Legislature that gets underway in Cheyenne beginning Feb. 11. Legislation will require a two-thirds vote for introduction given the fact it is a budget session.
Information gathered by Wyoming’s existing stream gauges can be accessed at www.usgs.gov. Jennifer Womack is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.