Water Development Office provides updates to Joint Ag Committee
Hulett – May 9-10 brought the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee to provide updates on rule revisions, as well at the Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program (PRRIP).
“The PRRIP is a program that has been running for 10 years successfully,” said Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde. “It has a 13-year life, so it is scheduled to expire at the end of 2019. I’m starting the process now of looking at extending program.”
LaBonde explained program is jointly run by Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, the Department of the Interior (DOI) specifically for the recovery of four threatened or endangered species in Nebraska.
“Those species do not exist in Wyoming,” he said, listing the whooping crane, piping plovers, the interior least tern and the pallid sturgeon. “In the 1980s, discussion started to happen from environmental concerns about water development on the Platte system that was taking the water away and potentially impacting these species’ existence.”
Later, in the mid-1990s, the three states entered discussion with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) about a program, which culminated in a cooperative agreement that was signed in 1997.
“That started what was originally envisioned to be a three- or four-year process to go through an environmental impact statement and start the PRRIP,” LaBonde explained. “It ended up taking about 10 years. In 2006, the PRRIP was signed, starting the first increment in 2007 and expiring in 2019.”
The program is currently run by a governance committee with representatives from all signatories, as well as environmental groups, upstream water users and downstream water users.
“That group makes the decision about what research is done and if land parcels are purchased, for example,” LaBonde said.
The program has three main goals.
First, it sought to acquire a minimum of 10,000 acres in the Central Platte system, which includes the Lexington, Neb. to Chapman, Neb. area, primarily river bottom habitat for nesting and foraging for the species.
“The second main goal is to acquire, for environmental purposes, 120,000 to 130,000 acre-feet of water per year for reducing shortages to target flows that affect these four species,” he said. “To date, we have acquired about 90,000 acre-feet of water per year, so we are short of that goal.”
Finally, they sought to look at the science and hypotheses regarding those species and their management.
“The hypotheses in the 1990s was that FWS would like to see 20,000 acres of habitat in the Central Platte area,” he said. “They also came up with an amount of water they felt they felt they needed, which was 417,000 acre-feet of water per year for endangered species, which is why Wyoming is involved in the program.”
“To put that into perspective, the conservation pool in Glendo Reservoir is about 470,000 acre-feet. They are talking about the amount of water that will fill Glendo for these species,” he said.
For Wyoming, LaBonde said there is some concern that Wyoming would be responsible for providing that water. He also noted that federal reservoirs are a target.
“As has happened in other parts of the country, the Endangered Species Act can trump 100-year-old water rights for endangered species,” he said. “That’s why Wyoming is involved.”
The third goal revolves around putting together science that proves or disproves whether the species need all that water.
“Some of the early research is showing that they really don’t need as much water as we originally thought,” LaBonde said. “That is an ongoing effort.”
In monetary terms, LaBonde said that for the first increment, 2007 to 2019, the budget was $187 million, which was paid in bulk by DOI.
“Wyoming’s share was $6 million, and Colorado put in $24 million,” he said. “There’s also a water requirement. Wyoming’s requirement was to construct the Pathfinder modification, which created an account in Pathfinder of 34,000 acre-feet of space dedicated to environmental purposes.”
Wyoming completed the project, and it has been operating successfully since 2012.
Because of a shortage of water from the goal of 130,000 acre-feet, LaBonde said the governance committee has developed and extension of the first increment, which starts in 2020 to run 13 years to 2032.
“While this program is in place, it is considered the reasonable approved alternative for these species, so there are no Section 7 consultations between water users and FWS. This program takes the place of that,” he explained.
The extension will allow the ability to meet the water goal.
“Now, the goal of the extension is 20,000 acre-feet per year, unless science shows that the additional 10,000 acre-feet per year is necessary,” LaBonde said. “We will also add an additional 15,000 acre-feet of habitat and continue the science program.”
“We’ve made some good progress in the first increment, and FWS has backed away from trying to develop nesting habitat on the North Platte,” he continued.
More success has been shown in raising birds in off-channel habitat, to increase bird survival.
“They want short-duration high flows to try to make islands with water, and we’re still testing those hypotheses,” he said. “I think ultimately that using water to make islands is not an efficient way to use the water.”
Because the program is now in a maintenance mode, the extension is predicted to cost $106 million over the next 13 years, of which Wyoming is responsible for $1.3 million. Colorado will contribute $24.5 million.
“The financial contribution provides regulatory certainty for water users in the basin,” LaBonde said. “That’s a positive program. The way I propose that be funded is through the water development program.”
He noted that the Wyoming Water Development Commission will likely approve as a project in the omnibus water bill, which is also how the original funding came through in 2006.
Implications for Wyo
If Wyoming were to back out of the program, for every water project with a federal nexus, including 404 permits, water development projects or water for municipalities, would require separate Section 7 consultation with FWS.
“As part of those consultations, they would request that each project provide water and cash to continue the research,” LaBonde said. “The other thing that I would expect to happen is that the operation of federal reservoirs would require separate Section 7 consultation, which enable FWS to say they want water from those reservoirs.”
As another benefit of the program, LaBonde said that the folks directing the research are members of the governance committee, and if the program is eliminated, FWS would run the program.
LaBonde emphasized, “Wyoming should most definitely stay involved so that we’re involved with the research, the direction of the research and we’re also involved in terms of deciding the water development projects and keep the scientific justification of water that we’ve established.”
LaBonde noted that legislation regarding the program should be expected as early as 2018.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.