The future of Wyoming water -Part 2

Published: May. 19, 2023 at 9:58 PM CDT
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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Wyoming News Now) - In this edition, we look at how the state is investing in water infrastructure, water project priorities and how riparian areas and forage could help for the future of our water.

The Bureau of Reclamation is investing $8.3B over five years in projects.

Those projects include water purification, recycling, storage, desalination, drought resilience and dam safety.

“To keep systems modernized or modernize them now in the case of agricultural systems because they are all a century old at this point and need a lot of upgrades,” said Jason Mead, Director of Wyoming Water Development Commission.

Yet dam and reservoir projects have been capped from the 1980s to the 2000s.

“We know we’re short on funding for water throughout the state, and it’s a finite resource state funding. So we have to figure out how to stretch those dollars further, and the most apparent option to do that would be to partner up with the federal government,” said Mead.

The Federal Inflation Reduction Act also invests $4.6B in addressing the historic drought.

Specifically for water management and conservation efforts in the Colorado River Basin and other areas experiencing similar levels of drought.

This focuses on near-term actions to protect the Colorado River in the Lower Basin.

The Department is also working to invest in long-term system efficiency improvements across the Basin, including at least $500M in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, which will result in additional water conservation for the entire system.

”A lot of small towns in Wyoming are agriculturally based, so if you don’t have the revenue coming through that AG. sector, your small towns throughout Wyoming suffer,” said Mead.

As with any resource, concerns about water rights and the potential of privatizing or commodifying water exist.

”That is a keen focus of mine is to not allow the speculative money grab on our water,” said Brandon Gebhart, Wyoming State Engineer.

The state engineer says that according to Wyoming statutes, water will remain public good.

The water development commission director says privatization would have negative consequences. Raising rates and cutting costs at the expense of quality and safety.

Mead suggests focusing instead on long-term conservation, irrigation efficiency and leveraging federal funding through the inflation reduction act.

”So we can do the same, if not more, with less water into the future and keep everybody profitable,” said Mead.

Even though we’ve had a water-rich winter, Ken Hamilton, Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, says the long-term drought is forcing water rights and water compact systems to kick in.

Counties like Sublette potentially face water curtailments to fulfill obligations to downstream states.

Yet experts say this is where riparian areas help substantially, and irrigation for AG. serves a dual purpose during winter.

“Systems we have in place to help livestock also provide a big benefit for wildlife,” said Hamilton.

Without the forage irrigation helps to create, ranchers will need to de-populate their livestock or ship herds elsewhere at a premium.

Matt Sussex, Bear Mountain Beef Owner and beef processor says water shortages end up in consumer pockets with higher-priced beef.

“Hopefully that we can figure out a way to continue to produce beef at an affordable price, but it gets more difficult all the time, so we’ll see,” said Sussex.

Many experts have said that water is the new gold.

But in our state, water may mean the difference between keeping the Wyoming way of life.