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Water tour features Grass and Cottonwood creek improvements

Big Horn Basin – The 2009 Wyoming Water Association tour featured a variety of water development and management projects throughout the southwestern region of the Big Horn Basin.
    Among the tour stops were a produced water site, the Grass Creek Weed Management Area and several water developments and improvements on the LU Ranch, owned and managed by Mike Healy, and Wyoming Whiskey at Kirby.
    The produced water, which flows into Cottonwood Creek from the Hamilton Dome oil field, annually contributes up to 10,000 acre-feet of water to the drainage.
    “This produced water has been crucial for the creek,” said area rancher Dee Hillberry. “There’s been a lot of pressure to not put this kind of water in creeks, but it’s important to our watershed and the basin.”
    He said Cottonwood is the only creek that runs all summer long at that end of the drainage. “We spend a lot of time defending this source of water because it’s important to the community and to the state to keep this produced water on the ground and usable,” he said.
    He said the water is warm when it comes out of ponds higher up the system, and as it cools it precipitates minerals and salts. “By the time it gets to our fields it’s outstanding irrigation and livestock water,” he noted.
    Larry Bentley, area resident and Wyoming Department of Agriculture staff, added, “It’s 50 miles from Thermopolis to Meeteetse, and without this water running in the lower part of the basin there would be absolutely no live water from July to mid-November. The importance of this water is more than most recognize.”
    The local watershed district has set in motion an initiative to add storage to the system to hold produced water through the winter. Hillberry said a Level 1 study with the Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) has already been completed, which identified potential sites, and they’re now in the midst of Level 2, which has narrowed the possibilities down to one location.
    Of the site, Hillberry said, “They claim it’s one of the best sites they’ve found because it has essentially no issues. There are no wetlands or trees and it’s got a good bottom and with reasonable cost we can store 4,500 acre-feet in the reservoir, catching water all winter long before it goes into the river and make it available the next summer for irrigating along the creek.”
    “It’s a great project,” he said, adding, “We’re looking forward to moving it along, and we expect the engineering work and feasibility study to be done next year.”
    An additional reservoir is in the works for the area on the Grass Creek drainage. Smaller, at 1,000 acre-feet, it will service the irrigators along Grass Creek.
    Of the produced water from the energy industry, Hillberry said, “It’s good water, and it’s an important resource for our community.”
    Moving through the tour agenda, the afternoon focused on weed management and water improvements on the LU Ranch on Grass Creek.
    “The Grass Creek Weed Management Area formed the same time the local watershed improvement district was forming,” said Hot Springs Weed and Pest Supervisor Marvin Andreen.
    To date the project has removed the Russian olive from between 22 and 25 stream miles along Grass Creek. The group also focuses on other weed concerns, including Russian knapweed and spotted knapweed.
    “This area used to be more blue than green,” said Andreen of the progress. “We’re starting to heal this riparian area and build it back.”
    Part of that effort has been to create a beaverdam effect by dropping downed Russian olives across the water and the planting of new willows along the banks.
    Landowner Mike Healy of the LU Ranch said, “This is one of those areas that hopefully in 10 or 15 years we’ll start seeing willow growth come in here. If we can manage the creek bottom the willows will come, because the seed source is here up above in the drainage, as are the beavers.”
    Andreen called the project a ‘winnable drainage,” compared to some others with a much larger infestation. “We took it on and we’ve got it going where we want it,” he said.
    Of the other water projects and improvements on the LU, Healy said, “Because we operate in several long valleys in the foothills of the Absarokas we’ve had difficulty creating a rotation we can use to give us a different season of use on the pastures. With the water developments we’ve been able to take two valleys and combine them.”
    In addition to rotations, Healy said the new water placement also keeps cattle off the creek bottoms. “We focused on off-channel placement of rubber tire water tanks and we were able to increase access to several plateaus on top of the ridges.”
    The LU ran the rotation for the first time in summer of 2008, and Healy said it “works like a charm.”
    “The cattle are distributed so much more than what they’ve been in prior years, and the grazing impact has been significantly reduced,” he noted.
    Healy said the ranch has worked on water projects for the last 10 years, and he estimates about five remain.
    “The ridge between Little Grass Creek and Grass Creek doesn’t have much water, and we need a source of water up there on both sides of the fence,” he explained. The ranch has a commitment from WWDC to help with water lines on the ridge, and now it awaits installation because the contractor is currently working on Hillberry’s ranch.
    Another project to commence with the end of this summer’s irrigation is the replacement of flood irrigation with two pivots on an irrigated pasture. That project will also convert the open ditch to underground pipe, preventing transportation loss.
    “There are a lot of places that still need improvements, and we try to do a little every year,” said Healy, adding they’re close to finished with their summer country and about half done in the winter country.
    A big result of the water work is the disappearance of the ranch’s water truck, which Healy joked they intended to bronze. “We don’t have to drive the water truck anymore, and we’ve saved a huge amount of labor there,” he added.
    “These water improvements have made us a little more drought tolerant. We’re now drought resistant, and in better shape than we were before to deal with drought,” he said.
    Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

With corn prices taking a tumble, some ranchers with cattle and irrigated land are taking a look at planting a forage crop this year. 

“It is something producers who have both cattle and farm ground are looking at because they are in a situation where they probably don’t have enough pasture for the cattle they have,” according to Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension specialist. “It is a way they may be able to hold their cattle herd together.”

Feeding options

Earlier in the week, December corn futures were down to $5.50. 

“The price is getting to the point that with the cost of production, there is not a lot of margin left,” Berger said. “Forage will be in short supply this year, and right now, any decent hay will cost between $175 and $225 a ton.” 

“It is possible to grow four to five tons of annual forage for a hay crop on a pivot, with a combination of spring cool season and warm season annuals. It is almost equivalent, gross-wise, to what a producer could get growing a corn crop,” he noted. 

However, because each individual operation is different, Berger encourages producers to put a pencil to the numbers and consider input costs before making a final decision. 

Important factors to consider are how much water is available, when it will be available, when the forage will be needed and how much management the producer is willing to provide from a grazing standpoint. What class of livestock will be grazed, which dictates how much the forage is allowed to grow, and how it is grazed are another important consideration, he said. Producers will also need to look at their fertilizer program, what equipment they have available and whether the forage will be grazed or harvested and fed someplace else. 

Berger said producers will want to plan ahead because seed may be in short supply. 

“Because of the drought last year and the feed shortage this year, a lot of producers are considering planting annual forages,” Berger said. “If you are planning to plant annual forages this year, I would recommend locking down some seed soon, because there will be a shortage.”

Moisture concerns

Although annual forages will harvest more tonnage on irrigated land, dryland producers may also want to consider this option, if they think there may be adequate rainfall. 

“They could consider planting some spring annual forages, like triticale, oats or barley. If we get some rain, they may get a crop,” he said. “In early June, they could plant summer annuals like sudangrass, foxtail millet or teff, but you need to have some soil moisture and receive some rain for it to grow.”

Berger said summer annuals need 2.5 to 3.5 inches of moisture per ton of forage produced. Spring crops need 4.5 to 5.5 inches to produce a ton of forage. 

“Summer annuals are more efficient, but they have a higher evapo-transpiration rate than spring crops during the summer,” Berger explained. “In our region, we get most of our moisture in April, May and June. I would try and reduce risk by spreading out the planting of the crops over a few months to try and get some use out of any moisture we might receive.” 

Maximize harvest

To maximize the amount of forage harvested per acre, Berger said producers should consider windrow grazing, baling or chopping the forage for silage when it is in the boot or head stage. He urged producers to avoid turning livestock into the field to graze, unless the crop has been windrowed first. 

“Grazing is only 50 percent as efficient as windrow grazing, or putting the crop up as hay or silage,” he said. 

Once the crop has been utilized, producers may want to consider reworking the ground and planting another crop. 

“Producers could plant something like oats or spring triticale now, take it off by grazing or haying by the end of June or first of July, and then come back and plant something like sorghum sudan or sudangrass that could be grazed in August or September,” Berger said. “They will just have to have a place for the cattle to go while the newly planted crop is growing.”  

Berger recommends producers put a plan together of how they will plant and utilize the forage. 

“I would recommend putting together a chain, so you have forage available from late spring through fall, depending upon what your goals are and what you have available,” he said. 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Star Valley – In the unique setting in Star Valley, producer Garry Crook says that irrigation has changed over the years, but much of his irrigated land is watered by gravity fed sprinklers.
    “On my operation, I’ve got sprinklers, and part of them are gravity flow,” he explains. “Our irrigation district has about 5,000 acres in it, and the intake is from Cottonwood Creek.”
Using gravity
    Because the irrigation intake sits about 1,500 feet above the irrigated land, Crook explains that pressure builds while the water is traveling to high enough levels to power sprinklers.
    “The water is carried in pipes, and the pressure builds up to sprinkler pressure,” he explains. “The sprinklers also have pressure control valves, so it doesn’t get too high.”
    In using gravity-powered sprinklers, producers are able to save money, since they aren’t paying to pump water from ditches or canals.
    “There are several fairly large irrigation districts in the valley that use the gravity to power sprinklers.”
    He adds that a number of smaller districts have similar systems.
    “There is still some flood irrigating going on too, but it’s tricky when you use the canal,” Crook says, adding that some producers still pump water to power their sprinklers.
    “The sprinkler system was changed over from flood irrigation to sprinkler systems in 1971,” says Crook of his operation. “We switched because of the efficiency and the increase in crop production.”
Crook’s operation
    Garry notes that on his operation, since switching to sprinklers, he has nearly doubled production, as compared to flood irrigation.
    “It covers more land, and we apply only what water we need to grow the crops,” he explains. “In flood irrigation, you can only cover part of the land, and the water sinks as it goes. Flood irrigation isn’t very efficient.”
    Crook took over his family operation nearly 40 years ago. The land is part of an original homestead.
    “I farmed for a living,” says Crook, adding that this year, he leased his farmland.
    After going to school at the University of Wyoming, Crook worked in the defense industry for 12 years.
    “We moved back to take over the ranch and the farm,” he explains. “We also made our living and raised a family here.”
    Crook raised alfalfa, grass hay and barley, mentioning that the climate isn’t warm enough to grow corn or wheat. As far as crops that grow in the short growing season, they were fairly limited to hay, oats and barley.
    “We planted the crops that work here, and we harvest only one and a half or two crops a year, instead of the three to four that can be done in warmer climates,” Crook says.
    Through the years Crook notes that the equipment they use in their operation has also changed to increase the efficiency of farming.
    “We started out with small bales,” he says of the alfalfa operation. “Before that, we had loose hay in stacks. Now we have large, round bales. It is a lot less labor intensive.”
    “Most of the crops grown here are fed to beef cattle or exported out,” he notes.
Changes in Star Valley
    Since moving to Star Valley, Crook has noticed some substantial changes in the valley.
    “While we have been here, dairy operations have gone out of business,” he says. “Those were hard changes to work through.”
    He also adds that price variation has been challenging.
    “When prices were low, lots of companies went out of business, and that was a challenge,” he adds. “Now there is about one-tenth as many people in the dairy industry as there was 20 to 30 years ago.”
    He says there were nearly 300 small dairies a number of years ago, while today only a handful operate in the valley.
    “The dairy industry changed in general,” he says. “They went from small operations like here in the valley, to production systems where they have several thousand head of cattle per operation.”
    Facilities in the dairy industry have also changed from flat barns to the milk houses and free stall barns that are seen today
    He has also noticed that farm ground is being converted into subdivisions, a change that has occurred in the past 10 to 15 years.
    “A lot of subdivisions have gone in, and retirees have moved into the valley,” Crook explains. “From an agricultural standpoint, land is broken into small ranchettes, so there aren’t as many operations as there used to be.”
    He adds that people in the valley have income from other sources, rather than agricultural production.
    “Things have changed quite a bit,” Crook notes.
    Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Mills — John Lawson, Area Manager of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (BuRec) Wyoming Field Office in Mills is a man of many numbers. Memorial Day 2008 he was dealing with more numbers than usual, and doing so in the wee hours of the morning.
    Rain gauges at Glendo in the days surrounding Memorial Day 2008 indicated eight inches of precipitation. Downstream at Guernsey the gauges caught about six inches of rain in just a few days’ time. As the rain came irrigators stopped calling for water and the 4,000 to 5,000 c.f.s. typically released from Guernsey Reservoir that time of year stopped flowing.
    “Glendo,” explains Lawson of the North Platte River system, “is the only reservoir with federal authorization for flood control.” The agency keeps flood control in mind when operating the entire system, but Lawson explains, “Glendo actually has exclusive flood control space.” Of Glendo’s roughly 800,000 acre-feet of capacity, 517,000 acre-feet are for conservation storage while 280,000 acre-feet are exclusively for flood control. When water levels surpass 517,000 acre-feet, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directs the releases of water from the reservoir. BuRec works with the Corps until storage numbers fall below 517,000 acre-feet.
    “Last year,” says Lawson of Memorial Day 2008, “we were preparing for the increased demand for irrigation and we were relocating water from Pathfinder to Glendo with the plan to have 500,000 acre-feet in Glendo my the end of May. Over the summer we draw on it and by September we’re down to 100,000 acre-feet.”
    Lawson chuckles at the drive-by comments like “Glendo is the lowest I’ve ever seen it.” Of the 100,000 to 500,000 acre-feet variation, he says, “That happens every year, year in and year out.” Managers prior to Lawson dropped the reservoir’s levels to 65,000 to 70,000 acre-feet.
    “The inflows coming into Glendo jumped from 3,900 c.f.s. to approximately 11,000 c.f.s in about 72 hours,” recalls Lawson of the rains that began on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. “We spent the wee hours of the morning on Memorial Day calling emergency management people from Glendo through Scottsbluff, Neb. because we didn’t know if we were going to be able to hold enough water in Glendo without making substantial releases downstream.”
    Inflows of 11,000 c.f.s., explains Lawson, amount to 22,000 acre-feet in a 24-hour period. When you consider the next reservoir down from Glendo, Guernsey Reservoir is 45,000 acre-feet, that’s a lot of water.
    “We were starting to sweat, wondering if it was going to stop raining,” says Lawson. “It happened at the same time the Missouri River was flooding downstream, so the Army Corps was not really interested in releasing any more water downstream than necessary.” Lawson says given the holiday people were camped along the river. “Can you imagine the flooding that would have occurred at Torrington and Scottsbluff if Glendo Reservoir had not been there to catch those flows?” asks Lawson.
     Upstream, Lawson says he was forced to drop flows out of Gray Reef into the Platte River from 2,500 to 500 c.f.s. Concerns have been expressed that the hatch from the spring spawn was harmed below Gray Reef, but Lawson says he had no choice. Flows were reduced for about two weeks, he says, noting, “I couldn’t bring the water back up until we got out of that flood control zone at Glendo.”
    Lawson says it’s also easy to forget the positive impacts changes in the river’s management have had in recent years. In 1993, based on a partnership with Game and Fish and University of Wyoming studies, BuRec began the practice of flushing flows. “The fishery out there poundage-wise has increased 10-fold,” he says. “There’s a reason you need a traffic cop to navigate the float boats,” he says of the river outside of Casper toward Alcova.
    Lawson says the release of 500 c.f.s. in the winter is another measure that BuRec has made with fisheries in mind. Gray Reef Reservoir, which is used to catch water out of Alcova Reservoir, allows the steady flows and the flushing flows without affecting power generation. “We build up Gray Reef and release the water from there,” says Lawson. By catching the water at Glendo, he says it can be done without a loss of Wyoming water. When irrigating season rolls around in southeast Wyoming, he says, “We’ve got the water 127 miles closer to you.”
    Prior to construction of Glendo Reservoir in 1959, Lawson says, “We would be running approximately 5,000 c.f.s. every summer from Pathfinder to meet the water needs for irrigators downstream.” Today, Lawson receives calls from concerned riverside residents when flows reach 4,000 c.f.s through Casper.
    Prior to Glendo, Lawson says wintertime flows only amounted to inflows from the tributaries below Alcova, and there aren’t many. By decree the irrigation season ended Sept. 30 and didn’t begin again until May 1 so flows were non-existent. The only reservoir downstream prior to Glendo was Guernsey and its 45,000 acre-feet of storage capacity.
    When Glendo was built, Lawson says 335,000 acre-feet of the storage was allocated to restore Pathfinder water. It’s a scenario that he says allowed for wintertime flows. Federal law passed as part of the authorizing legislation for construction of Gray Reef Reservoir now requires a minimum flow of 330 c.f.s, but Lawson says based on Game and Fish Department recommendations, that BuRec maintains flows at 500 c.f.s. or above whenever possible.
     “Now, rather than this river being dried up at Casper,” says Lawson, “we’re running flows all winter, which we weren’t doing prior to 1959.” Prior to construction of Glendo Reservoir, he says one month of winter flows would have filled Guernsey.
    “It allowed us to move Pathfinder water 127 miles further downstream closer to the irrigation,” says Lawson. “When we start irrigating we deliver it from close to the irrigators rather than releasing it up here and trying to get it down the river.”
    An ability to catch water at Glendo during the winter allowed for higher winter flows offering pollution abatement by improving the quality of the water available to the municipalities along the North Platte River. Without Glendo he says communities like Casper would have been held to a stricter discharge water quality to meet standards. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” he says.
    Another huge benefit was power generation. “The original and best renewable energy was hydroelectric,” he says. “We didn’t have Fremont Power Plant at Pathfinder. It wasn’t feasible when we could only run water through the generators six months out of the year.” Power production at Alcova was added in the 1960s.
    “We’re now using all of that winter flow for power generation,” says Lawson. “For a piecemeal system you’d think we’d planned it this way.” After bay dams, like Gray Reef near Alcova, allow BuRec to meet peak power demand while maintaining consistent flows in the Platte River.
    Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Powell – The 34,000-acre Heart Mountain Irrigation District is seeking to update water rights and improve its infrastructure to prevent interruptions in water supply and better serve their district, according to District Manager Tyler Weckler. 

“We are petitioning to the State Engineer’s Office to expand water rights to previously unadjudicated areas within the district,” Weckler says. “We want our farmers who are utilizing irrigation to be able to do so with water rights.” 

Water rights

“Water rights follow the land,” he explains. “We want our producers to be able to continue to irrigate and utilize best practices.” 

Weckler says Heart Mountain Irrigation District wants farmers who have water rights to continue to utilize those rights, but they also hope to offer the opportunity to farmers operating without to be able to claim water rights on their land and reap the benefits.

He noted the district is also operating under both state and federal grants to improve the infrastructure of the system, the federal WaterSMART Grant from the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as a $1.7 million grant through Wyoming Water Development Commission. 

“What can get complicated is each grant has different requirements and priorities,” Weckler says. “Where one grant may prioritize certain issues, the other grant may prioritize other issues.” 

“We have to meet all the requirements of both grants to receive funding,” he explains. 

If approved by the State Engineer’s Office, the enlargement would bring upwards of 3,400 more service contract acres into the district’s adjudicated area, according to Weckler. 

Water rights

Brian Duyck, president of the Heart Mountain Irrigation Board of Directors explains the history of water rights in the district as “complicated.” 

“The homesteaders farmed areas that weren’t necessarily irrigable,” he explains. “Back in the day, flood irrigation was the only option, and some of the very low or very high spots weren’t able to receive water.”

Duyck says because these lands weren’t irrigated in the past, they never had water rights to begin with. When modern technology improved irrigating techniques and allowed for the ground to be leveled, there was still no water rights. 

“We basically have a bunch of slivers of land that have no water rights, so the district extended contracts to these people, so they would be able to water their land without skipping over small slivers.” 

He explains, of the 3,400 acres to be added, some of it is in slivers of less than an acre. 

“These slivers without water rights could be in the middle of the field,” Duyck says. “This area needs regular water rights, so farmers can water their entire fields with no issues.” 

Improving infrastructure 

Weckler explains the water used by irrigators originates high on Heart Mountain and comes through the mountains and into the Heart Mountain Canal, which is lined by concrete.

“The concrete liner was built in 1938,” Weckler says. “We have had some seepage issues in the past due to the sandy, loamy nature of the location.” 

“Leaks are to be expected in any irrigation infrastructure,” he explains. “We have a maintenance crew that tends to small leaks as they occur.” 

He explains issues occurring higher on the mountain can disrupt water supply to the entire district.

“If this canal were to fail, our district could be without water,” he says. “Maintaining this infrastructure ensures we have a constant water supply.”

“We have had large failures in the past,” he explains. “With these grants, we’re hoping to go in and figure out where the weak points are and fix them.”


“We are currently in the process of environmental review for the WaterSMART Grant,” Weckler says. “These are just things that have to be done before we put a single bucket in the ground.” 

“Once we pass all the environmental inspections, we can move onto the design and bidding process,” he explains. “This is a process all projects of this nature have to go through.” 

Weckler notes Heart Mountain Irrigation District hopes to complete environmental reviews and bidding during the summer of 2019, with the goal of breaking ground this fall.

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..