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Legislation approves water transfer

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Cheyenne — SF68, “Omnibus water bill-construction,” which passed the Wyoming legislature mid-February, authorizes the transfer of water from Pathfinder Reservoir to the Wyoming-Nebraska state line as part of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP).
    The water transfer is one aspect of broader legislation addressing several Wyoming water projects. SF68 passed first reading in the House Feb. 18 and by week’s end had cleared the legislature. The Governor signed the bill Feb. 25.
    The Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) has a Wyoming water right to store 1,070,000 acre-feet of water in Pathfinder Reservoir for irrigation and domestic purposes. The BuRec filed a petition with the Board of Control, which was approved Nov. 4, 2008 following a settlement with the Upper North Platte Water Users Association, to change the use on 54,000 acre feet of that water right so 33,493 acre feet can be used for Wyoming’s contribution to the PRRIP and the remaining roughly 20,000 acre feet can serve as a supplemental water supply for Wyoming communities. Serving those communities along the North Platte River, the 20,000 acre-foot account is called the “Wyoming Account.” The transfer of 33,493 acre-feet across state lines is a measure requiring legislative approval, which was accomplished as part of SF68.
     Coupled with the proposed change of use that went before the Board of Control is a plan to carry out the Pathfinder Modification Project (PMP), restoring nearly 54,000 acre-feet of storage space lost to sediment. In a partnership between the BuRec and the State of Wyoming first proposed in 1994, the PMP would raise the elevation of the existing emergency spillway for the dam by approximately 2.39 feet.
    “The United States Bureau of Reclamation and the Wyoming Water Development Office are hereby authorized to transfer a maximum of 33,493 acre-feet of storage water per year from the environmental account in the Pathfinder reservoir to the Wyoming-Nebraska state line for the purpose of providing regulatory certainty under the Endangered Species Act for the use of Wyoming water in the Platte River basin,” says SF68 as it cleared the House Agriculture Committee.
    SF68 continues, “…the Wyoming Water Development Office is hereby authorized to transfer a maximum of 9,600 acre-feet of storage water per year from the Wyoming account in the Pathfinder Reservoir to the state of Nebraska through annual temporary water use agreements with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program in any year the storage water in the Wyoming account is not needed for Wyoming’s purposes.”
    According to Wyoming Water Development Commissioner Mike Purcell, the 9,600 acre-feet is the anticipated yield on the 20,000 acre-foot Wyoming Account. “In those years when we have a boomer year and we don’t need the water for Wyoming,” says Purcell, “I am seeking the authority to lease that water to the PRIIP and get money in exchange for that. When and if we get paid for that it helps pay for the operation and maintenance to the Bureau of Reclamation.”
    Legislators debating the bill Feb. 18 wanted assurances that the move would protect Wyoming irrigators from having to make additional concessions. Aspects of the legislation cancel the agreement if Wyoming abandons involvement in the PRIIP.
    The legislation also states, “If the director of the Wyoming Water Development Office determines that Wyoming water users are not receiving regulatory certainty under the ESA as provided in the PRIIP, he shall submit a report to the Select Water Committee outlining the inadequacy of the regulatory certainty.”  The legislation also required that if the State Engineer sees injury to Wyoming water users as a result of the action, that it be reported to the Select Water Committee.
    Purcell says construction to raise the dam at Pathfinder could begin as early as the fall of 2009. “We are required by the PRIIP to have it done by 2011,” said Purcell. “We’re hoping to get it done sooner.” The Wyoming Legislature has already appropriated $8.5 million to cover the costs of the project.
    Some, given the importance of the effort, say the transfer should have been handled in separate legislation instead of as a component of the broader construction bill.
    Purcell said Wyoming’s entry into the Pathfinder Modification Project (PMP) was approved in an omnibus bill. There are typically two omnibus bills relating to the agency each year, one dealing with planning and the other with construction projects. After conferring with the State Engineer, the Select Water Committee and the Legislative Service Office, Purcell says, “Because it was tied explicitly and uniquely to the PMP, which was authorized in an omnibus bill, it was proper to use this same vehicle for this authorization.”
    Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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