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Navigating Western waters: Last installation of UW seminar series addresses water challenges in the West

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The University of Wyoming (UW) College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources held the Navigating Western Waters Symposium – the fourth and final installation of its Ranch Management and Agriculture Leadership Program’s Ranching in the West Seminar Series – on April 22 at UW’s Gateway Center in Laramie.

Students, faculty and leaders from across Wyoming came together to discuss how to manage the state’s most valuable natural resource, while addressing water use, law and policy and scientific perspectives about water challenges in the West.

The symposium kicked off with Gov. Mark Gordon addressing water challenges Wyoming faces and how producers can continue to successfully manage their rangelands. 

He stated, “Numerous individuals are responsible for the existence of a water use system which meets the present needs of Wyoming residents and provides confidence in adequacy of supplies for the future.” 

He challenged the students in the room to continue to use technology to find innovative solutions to the challenges Wyoming is encountering around state water issues.

“I am thrilled UW students are preparing to adapt to challenges involving water storage, aging infrastructure and increasing demands on the Colorado River,” he stated.

Wyoming water

During the symposium, multiple speakers took to the podium to discuss various topics the state is facing associated with water in Wyoming.

A specific topic discussed during the symposium was the Brush Creek drainage of Wyoming’s North Platte River Valley, one of the most complex irrigation systems in the state.

Despite Kurt Bucholz’s passing in 2006, his wife Laura Bucholz, a resilient Wyoming rancher and president of the Gretchen Swanson Family Foundation, has continued Kurt’s work through initiatives like the Brush Creek Project.

The purpose of the program, said Jeb Steward, water rights consultant and former state representative, was to provide impartial administration of water rights to improve inter-ranch relations and protect water rights and associated lands through the correct apportionment of available flows to both native and imported water rights.

Brush Creek-French Creek Irrigation System Ranching Group Coordinator Michael Condict understands the importance of Wyoming water rights, as his family homesteaded in 1884 and holds water rights in the Brush Creek drainage, Elk Hollow Creek drainage, Cedar Creek drainage and different points in between.

According to Condict, before the program, producers in these areas spent more time fighting with each other and threatening lawsuits than irrigating with the water once they had it.

Condict stated, “In most cases, we really didn’t have any way to know whether the water we were fighting over belonged to who we thought it belonged to. We had no way to determine priority in any of these streams and, frankly, the state had no way of determining priority in any of the streams, let alone any ability to administer it if we knew what the priority was.”

Steward created a booklet irrigators can use to calculate water priorities according to state law, and it was the first step in a long journey toward an innovative, science-based model developed by researchers at UW.

The Brush Creek Project ensures each person has the correct amount of water, and in order to figure it out, building off of Steward’s model, the UW team started predicting how much water is supposed to go in each ditch each day, then spent the rest of the day going around the system trying to match flows as closely as possible to their predictions.

“The only way to resolve this issue was through a uniform method, which focused on utilizing computer models to calculate water rights priorities in real time,” Steward reiterated. “This method reduced conflict and put everyone on the same page, allowing state and local engineers to focus on better managing the resource, rather than resolving conflict.”

UW focuses on water issues

UW Professor of Watershed Hydrology and Water Resource Extension Specialist Ginger Paige’s main focus is working with watershed groups across the state and region to improve water quality monitoring and assessment. 

In addition, she has several water related projects across the region, including assessment of the impacts of energy development on soil and water resources and improved implementation of hydrologic instrumentation within the state. 

Paige said, “My research program is focused on rangeland watershed hydrology and the impacts of land use on water resources and water quality. I conduct watershed research on the measurement and modeling of surface water processes and how these processes change with scale.”

UW Associate Professor and Extension Water Resource Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics Dr. Kristiana Hansen’s background is in water resource economics, community resilience to weather and climate variability and wildlife habitat conservation policy. 

Hansen stated, “Our program seeks to inform and improve regional decision-making in water management and allocation and is currently involved in research projects including water markets in the Western U.S.”

She continued,  “We need to analyze the risks and impacts of different ways Wyoming and other upper Colorado River Basin states could meet their obligations to down-stream states under the Colorado River Compact.”

Joining the UW panel of speakers was UW Assistant Director and Assistant Research Scientist at the Center for Irrigation Science and Management Joseph Cook.

Cook helped resolve water rights conflicts within the Brush Creek irrigation system through scientific problem solving.

He has also facilitated ground-level solutions, fostering unprecedented cooperation among ranchers in Wyoming’s contentious watersheds and now extends his expertise to projects in the Upper Colorado River basin, focusing on consumptive water use and conservation measures. 

He aspires to replicate his success statewide and spearheads efforts to establish a Center for Irrigation Science and Management, leveraging the Bucholz Irrigation Excellence Fund initiated in 2023.

UW Department of Ecosystem Science and Management Soil Science PhD Candidate Daniel Adamson is completing scientific work on Wyoming’s flood irrigation mountain hay meadows, a critical forage production system for Wyoming ranches, and seeks to balance water management with ranch productivity and ecosystem health.

Rounding out UW’s panel to showcase UW’s work on Wyoming water issues was Jonathan Brant, a licensed professional engineer specializing in environmental engineering who holds a tenured full professorship in UW’s Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and Construction Management. 

Brant also directs the Center of Excellence in Produced Water Management at UW and is researching treatment systems for resource recovery and water reuse.

Melissa Anderson is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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