Wyoming rancher wants to make desert bloom
October 18, 2013
A prominent Sweetwater County, Wyo., sheep rancher is curious about whether a pipeline from the Green River that would flow part of Wyoming's share of water stored in Fontenelle Reservoir could turn semi-desert into agricultural-use land.
He's asking state officials to find out.
Bill Taliaferro thinks directing the water toward agriculture is one way to put it to beneficial use and, as a result, keep it from heading downstream to such water-short states as California and Nevada.
Taliaferro and former Wyoming Wool Growers Association Executive Director Bryce Reece have been trying to muster support for a feasibility study by the Wyoming Water Development Commission.
Reece is now a government affairs and natural resources consultant.
The state Water Development Commission is scheduled to discuss the proposal at its November meeting in Casper, Wyo., according to director Harry LeBonte.
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Members of the Wyoming Legislature's Select Water Committee took no action after hearing the proposal during a meeting in June.
Neither did a majority of the Sweetwater County Board of Commissioners.
Interestingly, Taliaferro and Reece have received support from Aaron Million of Fort Collins, Colo. Million's plan to divert some of Colorado's compact allocation of water from the Green River and Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Colorado's Front Range is currently on hold.
That plan has been widely denounced in Wyoming.
Wyoming controls 120,000 acre-feet of water stored in Fontenelle Reservoir on the Green River. The reservoir is administered by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Of that amount, the state has contracts to sell 46,550 acre-feet to four companies — Church and Dwight, PacifiCorp, Exxon and SSF Phosphates.
The state's share is also used for municipal needs.
Taliaferro said the land that could be irrigated supports only sagebrush and requires seven to eight acre-feet to support one cow for one month.
Taliaferro said he has shown that irrigation can turn the sagebrush land into productive agriculture land.
He said he grows hay on 700 to 800 acres of his private land, which is irrigated with water piped from the Green River. Taliaferro also uses the irrigated land for pasture.
He estimates 60,000 acres of private land below the Fontenelle Reservoir is less than 6,400 feet in elevation and therefore is suitable for irrigation by water from the Green River.
"It doesn't have any water today. Agriculture could tie up those water rights for the future," Taliaferro said.
Taliaferro said the state could take the water away from agriculture if cities and towns need it in the years ahead.
"But in the meantime it's a way to hold the water in the state," he said.
Taliaferro said he isn't interested in the project for himself because he has more than enough agriculture land to manage now, in addition to his sheep operation.
The Sweetwater County Board of Commissioners gave Taliaferro's idea a tentative nod, then withdrew approval.
Gary Bailiff, chairman of the commission, said one concern was that their approval might encourage outsiders who want to move Green River water to the Colorado Front Range.
"It might come across that if we have enough water to do that, why should we oppose sending our water cross-country?" Bailiff said.
There also was concern about future water demands from the trona mines and from Granger, Rock Springs and Green River.
The drought was also a factor in the commissioners' reluctance to endorse the proposal.
Yet Bailiff said he personally saw no problem with studying the feasibility of a pipeline.
"All it was was a study," he said.
This isn't Taliaferro's first foray into proposing increased use of Wyoming's share of the Green River. He was chairman of the Green River Basin Committee years ago when the group attempted to find a way to use the water within the basin.
"I caught hell when I said if we cannot use it in the Green River Basin, why not put it in the Sweetwater River and send it down the Platte to Eastern Wyoming, which could use it," he said.
"I'm not an engineer but I'm just saying if you want to make use of the water, you have to irrigate with it," Taliaferro said.
Marion Loomis is executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association. He said the trona operations in Sweetwater County seem to have enough water for the foreseeable future.
The companies have secured private water rights over the years, so they could get more water if they decide to expand. Also, Fontenelle Reservoir still holds water the trona companies could contract with the state for use.
The Green River Basin, Loomis said, is about the only place in the state with extra water.
Loomis believes Wyoming's interest in Green River water is pretty well protected after having talked with the state engineer and the Water Development Commission.
"It's good to be at the head of the ditch," he said.
When Sweetwater County commissioners fret aloud about outsiders eyeing Green River water, they mean Million.
Million is the principal owner of WyoCo Power and Water of Fort Collins. His plan for a 550-mile pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to Pueblo, Colo., went dormant after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied his preliminary permit application on grounds it was premature.
Million told the Star-Tribune his group is in discussion with three separate entities regarding capital participation and construction-related activities and engineering.
The group is focused on more engineering work on the project, which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said is necessary.
Million has applications pending with Wyoming state government seeking up to 250,000 acre feet of water a year. He has said he's seeking water that Colorado is entitled to under the Colorado River Compact, an agreement among Western states over how to allocate water in the river and its tributaries. The Green River flows into the Colorado River.
Meanwhile, Million thinks Taliaferro's agriculture irrigation project is a good idea.
"Any development along the Green River is development for Wyoming, and I think that's great," he said.
Million said his grandfather ranched and farmed in Green River, Utah, and developed the flatlands with excess Bureau of Reclamation water.
The operation has been a model for agricultural use, having developed thousands of acres of irrigated alfalfa and corn in the past 10 years, he said.
Million expects upper basin states will face increased pressure for their water because it appears that next year the lower basin states will be restricted on the amount of water they receive.
"Wyoming absolutely ought to put its allocation to use," Million said. "That beats the hell out of letting California get it."
Colorado should use its water compact allocation on the Green River and in Flaming Gorge Reservoir for the same reason, he added. ❖
Joan Barron is a writer for the Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune's capital bureau.