Water (money), water (money), everywhere

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Time is now to address critical irrigation infrastructures

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Wyoming’s water – whether it runs too high, too low or not at all – seems to be the single most important statewide topic of the season.

With irrigation shut down for autumn, livestock returning to home ranches or new and larger ponds setting a serene landscape, Wyoming’s focus on water, its timing and uses are at the forefront.

Engineers, scientists and government agencies are asking Sublette County water users to take serious surveys of aging irrigation infrastructures that need new headgates, diversions, pipes or concrete buttresses.

Recently, two very different water programs highlighted millions available to switch from ditches to pipelines, rebuild critical structures such as headgates, expand reservoir capacities or prevent flooding.

Or all of the above.

Hoback Watershed Level I

On Oct. 11 at the Bondurant Fire Station, Rio Verde Engineering’s Mike Jackson previewed the Hoback River Watershed Level I study with work by Greenwood Mapping, Alder Environmental, Stantec, several counties’ conservation districts, Wyoming Water Development Office and Commission and the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office.

The Wyoming Water Development Commission ordered the team’s study that covers parts of three counties – Sublette, Teton and Lincoln.

Jackson’s teams skimmed the 700-page report’s physical, biological and human-related systems.

During the Level I study’s scoping, stakeholders were invited to brainstorm for new development or rehabilitation projects eligible for WWDC funding.

“Wyoming Game and Fish really likes this watershed and is looking for projects” as are nonprofits and bureaus for joint projects, Jackson said.

Eighteen new development and 12 rehab projects came forward during the study.

The best bets are “shovel ready” and benefit watershed functions, said WWDO’s Mabel Jones.

Some being considered by the Small Water Project Program are fire suppression rehab at the Bondurant Fire Station and rehab for the Bowlsby and Julius Miller ditches. SWPP covers half a project’s costs to $70,000, including solar pumps for stock tanks, wetlands or fire-suppression cisterns.

Jackson and mapper Rich Greenwood documented water rights on a “layer” that overlays Sublette County – not yet public but a potential future research tool.

“The best eyes and ears are the people who live here,” Jackson said. “If you can show a public benefit, call the Wyoming Water Development Office.”

Sublette County Conservation District manager Mike Henn reminded people that annually accepted small water project applications are due Nov. 15.

Critical infrastructure

The next public meeting on Oct. 12 in the Pinedale Library’s Lovatt Room was specifically titled “Critical Aging Irrigation Infrastructure” with the message directed at mainly ranchers and landowners who convey water.

This was the fourth of 10 statewide public meetings WWDC plans to impress irrigators with the “magnitude of these problems.” and start a list.

Wyoming’s irrigation systems often predate statehood and some structures have lasted for that long,  said Trihydro senior scientist Jay Schug.

“We’re trying to find structures in need of rehabilitation.” He spoke along with WWDC’s Chace Tavelli and interim director Jason Mead.

Recent irrigation tunnel and diversion failures “highlighted the need to discover those imminent failures before they happen,” Schug said.

La Prele Dam is 110 years old and still functioning but its concrete is crumbling and rebar is exposed. Pipe joints separated in a private structure, letting water run underneath and wash out a critical ditch.

Often, if a structure still functions, urgency is missed until a critical portion fails, he said. There are thousands of these irrigation structures across Wyoming and the WWDC wants to be proactive in identifying necessary projects.

Staff will help develop infrastructure assessment plans – “We could have thousands when they’re done,” he said.

Then site visits are needed. If an irrigation structure is near “imminent failure,” now is the time to act and apply for WWDC funding, he said. WWDC can offer more management and improvement options, according to Schug.

“We are mainly focused on projects getting close to their life expectancy rather than making upgrades,” he said.

Mead explained levels I and II projects are 100-percent granted and Level III construction projects are 67 percent grant and 23 percent owner or sponsor matches.

Henn said the SCCD can work with smaller projects.

Jennifer Hayward of Pinedale’s Natural Resource Conservation Services said the USDA’s EQIP program can now assist with water management and brainstorming.

Water officials advised irrigators to take a larger scope with fish passages, wetlands, flood prevention, bank stability or dams, with possible funding from the Forest Service, BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Wyoming Game and Fish or Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, to name a handful.

“We encourage everyone to reach out to us with critical aging infrastructures because we can’t do it on our own,” Mead said, asking for public input and feedback as soon as possible. “We need everyone’s help across the state.”

To contact Mike Henn at the Sublette County Conservation District, go to https://www.sublettecd.com/"https://www.sublettecd.com, stop by 217 County Club Lane or call 307-367-2364.

For more about state programs, go to https://wwdc.state.wy.us/"https://wwdc.state.wy.us.

To talk to Jennifer Hayward at the NRCS Office, stop by 1625 W. Pine St. or call 307-367-2257.