Reservoir on short list for state funding

by nathan oster

While questions remain about the cost, there’s little doubt that ranchers in the Beaver Creek and Shell Creek drainage basins would benefit from a proposed enlargement of the 600-acre-foot Leavitt Reservoir.

That was among the views expressed by Jason Mead, director of Dams and Reservoirs for the Wyoming Water Development Office, and Victor E. Anderson, chief design engineer for Wenck Associates, during a Feb. 10 meeting at Shell Community Hall.

The purpose of the meeting was to bring ranchers in the Shell area up to speed on progress that has been made on the Shell Valley Storage Project Level II Study, an effort that originated in a 2006 study of the watershed and its future needs.

Mead began the meeting by saying it’s a favorable climate for projects like the one in Shell.

“We’ve got a lot of support in Cheyenne from all the decision makers,” said Mead. “If you’re ever going to get storage built, now is the time.”

Mead said there is $170 million in the Dam and Reservoir account and very few projects far enough along to apply for it. He said the Leavitt Reservior expansion is among the three at the top of the list — but that there are another 14-15 behind it, moving fast up the list.

“At some point, there’s going to be more competition for these dollars,” he said. “I don’t know when we’re going to get word that we need to start prioritizing, or if the legislature will keep pumping money in, so my recommendation is going to be to keep building them if we can.”

The Shell Creek watershed has been on the WWDC’s radar for nearly a decade A study that looked at the watershed and its needs began in 2006 and stretched into 2010. The focus then shifted to storage. Wenck was brought on to look at possible reservoir sites; eventually it narrowed the list to one.

According to the WWDC website, the off channel Upper Leavitt Reservoir site, located in the Beaver Creek drainage of the Shell Creek Watershed, has risen to the top of the alternatives analysis conducted on behalf of the Shell Valley Watershed Improvement District. The approximate 6,000 acre-foot reservoir site is located roughly eight miles northwest of Shell and will be an enlargement to the existing 600 acre-foot Leavitt Reservoir.

The reservoir footprint spans lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management as well as lands under private ownership.

Upon completion, the Upper Leavitt Reservoir will provide late season supplemental irrigation water for lands within the district, a minimum pool for fishing and recreation, as well as many indirect benefits relating to wildlife and fisheries habitat, conservation and the local community.

Mead said the Level II study involved geotechnical work and included evaluations of the dam’s potential impact on wetlands, cultural resources and paleontology — all things that must be considered to determine a quality site for a reservoir.

“We feel pretty strongly that we’ve got a feasible project to move forward with,” said Mead.

Anderson, with Wenck Associates, provided an overview of the project, saying what’s currently being proposed is a total reservoir capacity of 6,600 feet, of which, 643 would be water rights currently tied to the existing reservoir.

Wenck is proposing a 1,500 acre-foot recreation pool for fishing and other recreational uses. Up to 4,500 acre-feet would be set aside for supplemental storage for irrigation. The dam itself would stretch 1,500 feet, with a maximum height of 75 feet. Anderson said 1.1 million cubic yards of material would be used in the dam.

The estimated cost of the project is $38 million.

No firm numbers with regard to individual costs were provided, but Mead said the challenge is going to be “landing on a number you all feel comfortable with in terms of dollars per acre foot.” The watershed district anticipates it may end up around $25 per acre-foot.

Mead shared three different scenarios regarding ownership of the reservoir. Under one, the state would own it and enter into a long-term arrangement with the district. Another would see the reservoir handed over to the district, which would be responsible for operating it. A third would be for the state to build it, hold the water right and contract operation and maintenance costs to the district. Mead said the WWDC’s preference would be “local ownership, local operation and local control.”

With so many different agencies involved, the project is nowhere close to commencing. In fact, Mead estimated that it’ll take two to three years for agreements to be finalized and another two or so years to get the reservoir built. “So you’re really looking at being five years out until you have water,” he said.