WRDS Library [Home]
Digital Library Publications Videos Card Catalog

WWRC 97-05tt
Water Management in an Unregulated River System: The Little Snake River of South Central Wyoming

I wanted to be a part of this conference and went to thee trouble of gathering data for this paper because my opinions, views, and feelings about water development are clearly in the minority. There is a relationship between the work we do at the Retreat Center and my views of how water development should or shouldn't take place. My times fasting in the desert or mountains of Wyoming or South Dakota have given me insights, understanding, and courage. It is not easy being here saying the things I am going to say, to ask the questions that I will ask. I hope you will all be open minded. And if am not correct in some of my judgments or views, especially in parts of the Valley that I don't know as intimately as the Savory Creek, I ask your understanding.

My interest in how water is managed in the Little Snake River Valley has only recently evolved since my return to the Valley in 1986 to create a retreat center on the ranch where I grew up. The way that I think now is very different than the way I thought when I was growing up on the ranch. I spent my childhood working with and for my father in his sheep operation. We rushed about our business, we used the land, we "cruised over it"— we were not in it.

I am reminded of a wetland complex on our property, which consists of several acres of bog, willow, and shrubs, which abut both the bamyard area and the lower hay fields. As a child, we always talked about obliterating these wetlands to create a few more acres of hay field. Well, I must say that I am grateful that we never did anything to these wetlands—they are thriving as we speak. And I marvel at how my attitude towards them has evolved over the last 35 years.

How is it that we think about things? What are our primary needs, our secondary or supplemental needs? How do we justify them or evaluate them to know that they are critical to our survival? And how do our thoughts and beliefs about these needs influence our consideration of such things as habitat/ecosystem health, upstream-downstream, headwaters-end waters. What we think about them usually directly reflects how we feel about them, or vice versa.

But now to the nuts and bolts of how the valley water system operates: for convenience I have broken the valley into segments or areas in order to describe flows , water rights, agricultural use and then correlate these aspects to the data from gauging stations. The Upper Little Snake River is all the lands and tributaries east and north of the confluence of Savory Creek and the Little Snake River. The Savery Creek includes all the tributaries and lands along the Savery Creek. The Lower Little Snake includes the lands and tributaries from below where Savery Creek comes in and down to the section of the river where the last ranches in Colorado or Wyoming draw water out for irrigation. [Detailed Map will be Available at Conference]

The flows in the valley vary enormously from year to year, depending on snow pack, melting rates and rainfall. The 73 year average flow through the gauge near Lily Colorado, which is near the confluence of the Yampa and the Little Snake, is 415,200 acre feet. It has been as high as 1,000,000 and as low as 200,000. The Upper Snake River as measured by the gauge near the Focus Ranch in Colorado, has provided 164,500 acre feet averaged over 51 years or about 40% of the volume year to year. Most of the water in this part of the basin comes from the Roaring Fork, the West Fork, the North Fork, the Middle Fork and the South Fork (and their smaller tributaries) of the Little Snake River. The lower portion of the Upper Snake River is fed mainly by Battle Creek and some smaller tributaries. About 30% of the annual flow through the system enters in this area of the river. The Savery Creek and its tributaries provide about 20% of the flow to the system annually or about 75,000 acre feet per year. The remainder of the input to the system (about 10 %) comes from a number of small tributaries between Savery and the Lily gauge- these tributaries provide input to the system primarily in May and June during spring runoff or heavy rain episodes. For most of the year the tributaries in this part of the system are dry.

The adjudicated water rights for irrigation in the Little Snake system far exceed the actual lands irrigated. "The Upper Snake River (as defined above) has rights to irrigate 7705 acres, which represents about 25% of the total adjudicated acreage in the system. It is interesting to note that this same area provides about 70% of the annual flow to the system. The Savery Creek has adjudicated rights to irrigate 5737 acres or about 20% of the total adjudicated acreage in the system. The actual irrigated acreage is about 2200 acres along the lower reaches of the Savery Creek. The Lower Snake (as defined above} has 53% of the adjudicated acreage or 15,504 acres. Again it is interesting to note that only 10% of the supply enters the system where 53% of the irrigating could take place if all these lands were irrigated. The actual irrigated acreage in the whole system is presently estimated to be between 12000 and 14000 acres compared to a total of 28,946 adjudicated acres. The estimated irrigated acreage outside the Savery Creek is between 9800 and 11,800 acres. About 25% of these acres are in the Upper Snake (Savery and above) and 75% are in the Lower Snake (Savery and below). There are also more than 200cfs of rights for the city of Cheyenne and numerous stock reservoir rights in the system.

Actual consumption in the system is hard to estimate. Withdrawals during high runoff in May and June certainly exceed 1000 cfs which is six times the adjudicated right-everybody in the system is happy during high runoff, flumes [where they exist] are often submerged and the irrigators wear tall boots and irrigate in a frenzy. The problems and pressure in the system begin to develop as the supply and demand curves meet in late June early July. Management of the system is mysterious. A full time water commissioner has worked in the valley only during the last four years, partly driven by the fact that a supplemental supply reservoir may be built in the system, partly because we live in the 20th century and some regulation might be in order. But there is no regulation. The height of the river and where ones diversion structure is in the system determines ones level of consumption in July, August, and September. The major canals and the headgates close to rivers or tributaries with water in them get the water. It is not uncommon for the Little Snake to have 100 -200 cfs of water in it above the two major canals (First Mesa and West Side) and be essentially dry at the Dixon gauge. And even in this scenerio, only the irrigators in the upper parts of these canals get any water. Late season irrigation water for fall pasture is only presently available for a few irrigators in the upper part of the Savery Creek and the Upper Snake River (above Savery) and a few people along the large canals. And it is not clear that even with a new supplemental storage reservoir for late season irrigation, that distribution and availability to a significantly larger group of irrigators would evolve.

Given that this is an agricultural community and the water available in the system is used almost exclusively for irrigation, some discussion is in order about how this priority relates to other aspects of the Little Snake River system, such as ecosystem health, fisheries conditions, riparian habitat conditions, and a variety of other upstream and down stream alterations to the overall environment. What has been created by 150 years of irrigating in this valley? How have the environmental conditions in the valley changed over time? Can we still reconstruct how it might have been 150 years ago, or 50 years ago, or 25 years ago? Is it important to reconstruct. It depends on ones views.

In general, and these are my views, the environmental condition of the land and river habitat in the areas, where crop production and livestock operations have dominated, are badly deteriorated. The fisheries in the lower reaches of the Savery Creek and almost all of the Lower Snake River (Savery and below) are very marginal or non existent. The existent and best fisheries are in the headwaters of the Savery Creek system and the tributaries of the Upper Snake. Fishing on the mainstem of the Upper Snake is fair tc good in certain reaches depending on flows, whether or not stocking takes place, and how the riparian habitat is managed in conduction with livestock operations. Good self sustaining fisheries exist only in the headwaters of the Savery and the Upper Snake. Old timers in the valley reminisce about the quality of the fisheries, especially in the middle reaches of the Little Snake- and they feel that it has deteriorated significantly over the last 50 years.

The condition of such things as wetlands, willow and cottonwood habitat, riparian habitat along the stream banks, is badly deteriorated in all of the river bottoms of the Savery and Little Snake where hay production and livestock operations exist. Over the years, the river channel has been significantly altered mainly by bulldozing large volumes of gravel and boulders out of the stream channel and up along the banks to reduce flooding during high flows. The result it that the wetlands, willow communities, and cottonwood forests have no natural way of rejuvenating themselves. The cottonwood forests are severely deteriorated and consist primarily of older trees, except in areas where natural flooding can still occur and young cottonwoods can take root. I have personally walked many miles of the Savery creek, and there are very few areas where significant numbers of young cottonwoods are coming along. The condition of the cottonwood forest in the area of the proposed Sandstone dam was recently assessed as a part of the EIS and the picture painted by the "experts" was not a pretty one. It was described as "severely deteriorated." There is no hay production on this part of the Savery, so this deterioration is driven entirely by how the livestock operations are managed. This area of the river has been severely abused by cattle and horse grazing.

And now to the larger issue at hand. What form of water management should be put in place in a system like the Little Snake? Should it be different than it is now? If a supplemental storage reservoir is built, should management practices be different? Clearly these are difficult questions, especially for the ranchers who have lived in the valley for a long time and are use to having little to no regulation. If more water is available from storage during low flow, should all of it go to irrigators? Clearly the environmental conditions in the valley as a whole need to be addressed and the management practices for crop production and livestock operations need to become more holistic. Some of these practices are already underway in terms of how riparian areas are grazed and managed in the Muddy Creek and Loco Creek areas and on a few ranches in the valley. But change on a large scale will be slow in coming. Is it possible to begin restoring the fisheries in the lower reaches of the Savery Creek and the middle portions of the Snake River ? Can we begin to encourage the regeneration of the cottonwood forests in the whole Little Snake system? Can minimum stream flows in the whole system be a condition, if supplemental storage becomes a reality? Clearly the answer to a lot of these questions is yes, if you are in the minority or a part of the conservation groups of the state. But to many it is anathema, invasive, and unfair even to consider many of these things. This is what we are in the midst of now. We need to sit in the fire, however we think, whatever the position we have.

When I came back to Wyoming in 1986, after a 20 year absence, my desire was to create a place where people could slow down and learn about their connection to the land, to the earth, to the real mother. It is not an accident that I would return to Wyoming to begin a new "sort of spiritual phase" of my life and almost instantly have the whole prospect of the Sandstone Dam and all of its related issues thrust in my face. It was not a coincidence. It has been a test for me-to see if the values that I have about the earth are real. I really believe the prophesies that some of the Native Americans have about man's survival on the earth. I have held these beliefs in the back of my mind as we at the Retreat Center and members of my extended family have faced the hurdles of the 404 permitting process for a water development project in the valley. We have felt very alone and isolated—but we have persevered. Any large scale reservoir will not seem right to me, will not be appropriate for whatever piece of habitat that will be impacted by it. I am pleased that there are small scale projects like the Muddy Creek and Loco Creek projects. These are small scale, non destructive, and very effective in terms of improving very local habitat conditions for local industries. I have always wondered why the local politicians, members of the Water Development Commission, and the staff of the Commission didn't push for $15- 20 million of funds for riparian habitat improvement and grazing system projects. They have really worked. They allow the natural system to operate in a way that allows us humans to use it and improve it at the same time. Wow!

I have always been very intrigued by the way the permitting process for a supplemental supply reservoir has worked. In all of the meetings from the beginning of the process, there has been a huge resentment by a majority of the players about having to follow the 404 guidelines. To our relief and the dismay of many, these guidelines have provided our only safety net. Without them, not much about the Sandstone and other sites would have been assessed. Wetlands, cottonwoods, hydrology, and many other particulars would not have been assessed. The alternative site analysis process and the requirement of choosing the Least Environmentally Damaging Alternative [LEDA], really did result in "due consideration." Why shouldn't the site that is ultimately chosen be the one that causes the least environmental damage? Otherwise it would be sort o like a cancer patient arbitrarily choosing the treatment with the most bad side effects, when other equally effective but less damaging treatments are available.

And somehow our perspective about water development is never quite large enough from my point of view. How do we keep expanding picture that we look at? How do we glean the essential truths of the larger picture and then apply them to the little pieces of the picture? How is water management/development in the Little Snake River Valley related to conditions up and down the whole system? What should we (be forced to] consider? I want to close with some data and a quote I came across recently in a World Watch Paper.

A low altitude flight over the Colorado River Delta, not far from where the Cocopa traditionally harvested their nipa, reveals the dry channel of the Colorado, which still traces the river's meandering path to the sea. This is the place where, for millennia, the river deposited its rich load of silt and supported a diverse ecosystem before delivering its treasure of nutrients to the Upper Sea ofCortez. It is the place where American naturalist Aldo Leopold journeyed by canoe in 1922 and reported seeing deer, quail, raccoon, bobcat, and vast fleets of waterfowl. The winding river, slowing as it spread out through countless green lagoons, later led Leopold to muse, "for the last word in procrastination, go travel with a river reluctant to lose his freedom in the sea." Leopold never returned to the delta for fear of finding this "milk and honey wilderness" badly altered—and his fears were justified. Today, the Colorado's freedom has been lost to a degree even the prescient Leopold could scarcely have imagined. Only in years of extremely high precipitation in its watershed does the Colorado run all the way to the sea. In most years, what remains of its flow after ten major dams and several large diversions is a trickle that literally disappears into the desert of northern Mexico, [See figure 1.] Much of the delta's once abundant wildlife is gone, Fisheries in the Sea of Cortez have declined dramatically. And the native Cocopa way of life is threatened with extinction.

Water Resources Publications List
Water Resources Data System Library | Water Resources Data System Homepage