Water in the West: The future of irrigation and fisheries

Water in the West: The future of irrigation and fisheries

Christine Peterson Star Tribune staff writer December 01, 2014 U S.

California is experiencing the worst drought in its recorded history, and experts say that much of the West, including Montana and Wyoming, could see similar weather events. Millions of gallons of water eventually flows into the Bighorn, Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi rivers before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. We will be building reservoirs, Storing water is one of the best ways to preserve the state’s resource for the future and use what is legally ours. It is necessary conserve water for agriculture and fisheries.

California is experiencing the worst drought in its recorded history, and experts say that much of the West, including Montana and Wyoming, could see similar weather events. So what is being done to conserve water for agriculture and fisheries?

Every spring, John Joyce watches as thousands of gallons of water in the Nowood River rush by his ranch in northern Wyoming. It is water that eventually moves into the Bighorn, Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi rivers before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. In his mind, and in the minds of other ranchers in his area, it’s wasted water that could help their fields. The answer, they believe, is a 7,500-acre-foot reservoir.

The Nowood might run somewhere between 500 and 800 cubic feet per second, but in the spring it might run as high as 5,000 cubic feet per second, so all of that water goes to Montana, Joyce said. We would like to capture a little bit of it and use it ourselves. The off-channel Alkali Creek Reservoir is a way to keep irrigation late into the season for farms and ranches without damming a major creek or river.

The project is one of a handful the Wyoming Water Development Commission has been studying and could be proposed by Gov. Matt Mead as part of his new water strategy to be released in January. We will be building reservoirs, Mead said at a water conference in October in Casper. New ones as well as looking at the ones we have. Storing Wyoming’s water is one of the best ways to preserve the state’s resource for the future and use what is legally ours.

Opponents of new reservoirs say the state could find better ways to conserve water that don’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars and have untold environmental impacts. At a time when the rest of the country is removing dams, Wyoming should be looking at an innovative future with water, not one that hearkens back to an era of massive concrete structures and tamed rivers.

Spending tens of millions or billions of dollars building additional surface reservoirs takes the money and effort away from developing more sustainable or efficient alternatives like water conservation measures and groundwater and recharge storage said Matt Stoecker, fisheries biologist and producer and co-creator of Dam Nation, a film by apparel company Patagonia. All of the dam projects are subsidized. They don’t make financial sense on their own, which tells you a lot right there.