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Irrigation projects, Water projects ensure abundant water in Washakie County

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The current residents of Washakie County work hard to ensure a healthy balance of all resources found in the region, with one of the most critical elements being the water supply for agricultural purposes. 

A common activity among Wyoming ranchers is checking the Snow Precipitation Update provided by the United State Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, commonly referred to as the “snow pack,” with many of them even participating in the collection of related data. 

In Wyoming, the snow found high in the mountains is later utilized or stored during the spring. Runoff is the lifeblood of agriculture throughout the entire state. Nowhere in Wyoming is the storage and utilization of the precious run off waters more important than in the arid regions of the Bighorn Basin, located in north-central Wyoming. 

Deriving its water from snow found in the mountain high above Dubois, the lower Big Horn Basin has become a productive agriculture area over the previous century. 

This has taken place, even against great odds, as it is one of the hottest, driest and harshest regions in the entire state during the summer months. In fact many of the rivers and creeks that brim full in the spring during run-off, flowing swift, dwindle to a sparse trickle in the late summer and fall. 

Harvesting water

To increase the odds of success in these types of environments, construction and utilization of reservoirs to preserve the spring run off water has been essential.  

The first attempt to harness and preserve the runoff in the Big Horn River was in 1908.  A Wyoming businessman named Asmus Boysen constructed a concrete slab and buttress dam on the Big Horn River to operate a small hydroelectric plant, which supplied power for the towns in the area. 

Unfortunately, after only 15 years of operation, the dam silted in and was abandoned. It was not until the 1930s that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began conducting surveys in the Big Horn River Basin. 

Greater benefits

The Corps reported that the benefits of constructing a dam on the Big Horn River were much greater than previously believed. These benefits included flood control, silt retention, water conservation and hydropower.

The Bureau of Reclamation became involved in the project in 1941. Their studies were published in 1942 and became the basis for the inclusion of the Boysen Unit in the Missouri River Basin Project. 

The Boysen Unit was authorized as part of the Missouri River Basin Project by the Flood Control Act of 1944. This act authorized the development of the Missouri River Basin through a joint program of the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Major General Lewis A. Pick of the Corps of Engineers and William G. Sloan of Bureau of Reclamation designed the program, and the name was later changed in honor of those two men to the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program.

Completing the project

Boysen Reservoir was not fully constructed or put into full operation until the early 1950s.

The process of building the dam and reservoir was long, tedious and full of challenges. 

Roads and railroads had to be relocated. Sections of U.S. Highway 20 and the Chicago and North West Railroad were required to be moved. 

A government camp was also built to house the workers and their families. 

Construction was delayed several times due to massive rockslides that destroyed portions of the relocation efforts. 

After more than six years of work and numerous setbacks and delays, the project was finally complete and operational on Jan. 1, 1953. 

Ag benefits

Agricultural operations in Washakie County benefit greatly from the irrigation made possible from the construction and operation of Boysen Reservoir. Producers are involved in a wide array of activities, ranging from cattle and sheep operations to diversified farming operations. 

The water from Boysen is delivered to the area via three major canal systems. 

Many operations are a combination of livestock and farming, taking advantage of crop residues to winter livestock herds. 

The farming operations that have developed include barley, sugarbeets, corn, beans, hay and alfalfa. Pivot irrigation has quickly gained in popularity around the area in the last decade. 

Washakie County offers farmers a unique opportunity in Wyoming to industriously pursue farming, with an elevation of only 4,000 feet above sea level, extending the growing season to the inclusion of growing a great variety of crops. 

However, farming in the area is achievable only thanks to the development of a comprehensive irrigation system made possible by the construction and implementation of Boysen Reservoir. 

With the increased overall agricultural production and subsequent increase in the quality of life in the area for residents, it is safe to state that the project of damming the Big Horn River, despite the challenges involved, was a success that has grown beyond expectation.

A project that was nearly totally abandoned is now responsible for creating a productive farming and ranching situation in a region where there was once very little opportunity for diversified agriculture. 

Heidi Suttee is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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