Draft drought plans could bring big changes

At the Oct. 11 meeting in Pinedale with the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office, it grew clear that people in the audience had questions – a lot of questions – about the state’s draft drought-contingency plans and agreements.

State Engineer Pat Tyrrell opened with an overview of how these drought contingency plans were developed in light of the West’s ongoing 19-year drought. With declining elevations in the Upper Colorado River Basin’s Lake Powell and Lower Basin’s Lake Mead, he said, the “urgency” to deal with drought only increased with the past years’ “very poor hydrology.”

(See the related article on page 3.)

One recent example was the lack of late-summer rains that adversely affected some Sublette hay crops and dried out grass, brush and trees so dangerously that a small campfire turned into the massive, fickle and destructive Roosevelt Fire. After it consumed more than 60,000 acres along came the rain, rain and more rain, and snow.

Put that next to the drastic water shortages in reservoirs downstream from the Green River Basin into the Colorado River.

The water so badly needed downstream will likely come from Wyoming where it hasn’t been fully used, according to Tyrrell and officials, who broached the subject of a future “call” on Green River flows.

Brown and Wolff gave historic reviews and upcoming predictions about the likelihood that the state’s water will be called upon to increase downstream elevations at Lake Powell and Lake Mead and fulfill the Upper Basin’s water obligations.

An option posed by Tyrrell and further boosted by evidence from senior water attorney Chris Brown and interstate streams administrator Steve Wolff would be to develop broader regional programs. For example, the Green River Basin’s pilot water conservation program paid irrigators to not use their water. Throughout the meeting, questions arose from ranchers familiar and unfamiliar with the pilot program that apparently paid well.

One rancher pointed out with 30 people there, though, if everyone with a question or comment had just one minute, the meeting would overrun its allotted time. These are questions and answers that will be addressed down the road, according to Tyrrell and Wolff.

I appreciated the presentation and wealth of knowledge the SEO staff shared and I followed up on their commitment to post the meeting’s PowerPoint and video from Cheyenne on the drought-contingency plans.

These are easy to access at seo.state. wy.us, as are the draft contingency plans and agreements themselves.

Noting that the timeline was for these basinwide agreements to be signed late this year or early next, I emailed Steve Wolff with several questions and received this prompt response.

Q: It seemed like a good share of the audience had more questions or comments – is there a public comment period? Can people submit input; if so when where and so on?

A: The agreements are in draft form and so minor changes are likely but we do not expect significant changes. We welcome public feedback and questions on the documents. Because the UB DCP establishes a framework and process for developing plans in the future, that feedback will be most helpful for developing those plans. There is no formal comment period but we are happy to receive comments at any time directed to the SEO.

Q: Will there be more follow-up meetings in Baggs, Rock Springs and Pinedale for the SEO to report back to the public?

A. We have not currently scheduled follow-up meetings but will for the purpose of developing the plans contemplated by the (Upper Colorado Basin) DCP. With that said, we do plan on a very open and intensive public involvement effort beginning sometime in 2019 – when we begin to develop the demand management element of the program outlined in the DCP documents.

Q: Is it Mr. Tyrrell who signs the final version or is it something that the Upper Colorado River Commission has to vote on? In other words, where does it go from this draft stage, so do you anticipate any changes and then who has to make it official? Does the public have any opportunity for feedback; how would it be used?

A: The UCRC will need to vote to approve the DCP agreements, and Mr. Tyrrell will sign the UB DCP agreements and the companion agreement on behalf of Wyoming. We suspect the UCRC approval will be obtained before the end of the year, but we don’t expect Pat will sign the documents until after obtaining congressional approval, and Arizona’s approval of the (Lower Colorado Basin) DCP, which may not be until early to mid 2019.

Joy Ufford photo

Irrigation ditches run fast and full in the springtime.