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Lawson doesn’t foresee 2009 water shortages

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper — Wyoming irrigators, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) Wyoming Area Office Manager John Lawson, should have sufficient water for the 2009 growing season.
    In Wyoming Lawson’s office overseas the management of Buffalo Bill Reservoir, Boysen Reservoir and the reservoirs along the North Platte River system. “I’m not seeing a water shortage to any of our agricultural or municipal customers,” says Lawson of 2009.
    The office’s northernmost reservoir, Buffalo Bill,  is at 67 percent of capacity. That’s 106 percent of the 30-year average with area snowpack reported at 103 percent of average. BuRec forecasts 700,000 acre-feet of water will enter the reservoir as a result of spring and summer run-off.
    “All indications are for a good year,” says Lawson. “That’s the reservoir that we forecast the best and with the most consistency.” Backed by a lot of high country snow, Lawson says it’s the reservoir in his area with the most consistent numbers.
    Snowpack in the Wind River Range has jumped from the 70s to nearly 100 percent of average in recent weeks, bringing with it a more positive 2009 outlook for Boysen Reservoir. “It can change that quickly in less than two weeks,” says Lawson. It’s also the optimum time to see snowpack numbers on the increase, as April snows carry far more moisture than winter snowfall.
    “Cautiously optimistic” is how Lawson describes his thoughts on the North Platte River system. Looking to the top of the system at Seminoe, the best predictor for the months ahead, he can quickly describe his reluctance to “over predict” this year’s inflows.
    In 2008 snowpack readings for the Upper North Platte River Basin were at 110 percent of average, about the same as they are now. Inflows into Seminoe reached 950,000 acre-feet, making it a good year for enhancing storage water. In 2006, however, Lawson says snowpack levels surpassed 2008 levels, but inflows into Seminoe amounted to 545,000 acre feet. The difference, he says, is the time at which the snow arrived. 2008 was marked by spring storms, while 2006 snowpack levels were built on wintertime snowfall followed by a dry spring. The scenario explains BuRec’s expected 2009 inflow forecast of 700,000 acre-feet for Seminoe.
    “The system as a whole is about 52 percent full and it’s about 87 percent of where we’d normally expect it on an average for this time of year,” says Lawson of the entire North Platte River system in Wyoming. Because the river and reservoirs are operated as a system, he says that’s the number he tends to look at first.
    As he meets with irrigators Lawson says he continues to stress conservation. “You never know if we’ll turn right around and go back into a more depressed run-off period. That water that you save today may be water that you’re going to need two or three years from now.” He says saving water is what storage is all about. It’s not just carryover, but a bank account, he further explains.
    Water conservation has seen vast improvements in Wyoming so far this decade, says Lawson. He says the irrigation districts he’s visited with are talking about a three-week water run for hay beginning in May followed by about a two-week shut-off. They plan to start back up in June and run through early September.
    Lawson says new management practices have replaced what used to be a “let it run” approach that started in May and continued until late September.
    “We’re usually off by no later than Sept. 10,” he says of today’s practices. “Before 2001 they may not get shut off until Sept. 25.” While 15 days doesn’t sound like that much, Lawson says it can easily amount to 90,000 acre-feet, enough water to fill Guernsey Reservoir twice.
    “Management perspectives have changed dramatically as a result of the kinds of conditions we’ve been involved with the last eight years,” says Lawson. He says irrigators have found ways to decrease their water use while maintaining, and, in some cases, increasing their yields.
    Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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