BOR fumbles Big Sandy assessment
by Cat Urbigkit, Pinedale Online!
November 8, 2017
The Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) has released an environmental assessment for enlarging the Big Sandy Reservoir and is accepting public comment on the proposal until Dec. 6. But unless BOR determined you were an "interested stakeholder" you probably wouldn’t know that. No press releases were issued, no notice soliciting public comment was posted on the agency’s website, and a letter stating the document’s availability and public meeting date was sent only to a select list of people and government agencies. Although the letter was sent to Sweetwater County officials, Sublette County officials were not consulted nor on the distribution list, even though more than half the reservoir is located in Sublette County.
That nearly 500 acres will be newly inundated is only mentioned in the document’s assessment of impacts to Greater Sage-Grouse. BOR officials were unable to answer a question of how many of these acres are held in private landownership. Those are some of the issues that arose during the BOR’s public meeting Tuesday night in Farson that was attended by about a dozen local residents.
Pete Arambel of Dunton Sheep Company is the lone private property owner in the area impacted by the reservoir expansion and said that under state law, all affected private landowners were to be contacted, yet he was not.
"Why did you not?" Arambel asked. "I have 1,600 acres on that reservoir; 800 above, 800 below. I’m the only landowner there. I was never contacted." Arambel continued, "Our company has owned this ground for 115 years; we’ve operated this ground for 100, and no one ever talked to us. Why?"
BOR officials responded that they have discussed the Arambel property with state officials, and most recently, have been in contact with Arambel’s attorney.
"This document doesn’t deal with anything with the affected lands," Arambel said. "It doesn’t deal with anything about our operations. This is birthing country: you’re taking my lambing ground. You’re taking my calving ground. … There’s nothing about my operation here."
BOR’s NEPA Compliance Lead Peter Crookston said since the design phase is only at 30 percent, this was early in the planning process, and suggested Arambel submit his concerns in writing during the public comment period.
One BOR official said the EA looked at the lands in the area in general, "holistically," rather than any individual parcel. Arambel responded, "Your people trespassed on my land three years ago taking your elevation points. Was I ever contacted to give you access, or grant access, to any of that property? No."
BOR said state officials were in charge of talking with private property owners about the project. The Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) is the lead agency funding the project, and the project sponsor is the Eden Valley Irrigation and Drainage District.
Arambel said that both the WWDC and BOR had proceeded with the project without contacting him, and he had to be the one to initiate contact about the project involving his private property.
Other things you won’t find in the EA include:
• The cost of the project. A Wyoming Water Development Commission study puts the construction cost at $8.4 million.
• A timeline for the project. Under questioning at Tuesday’s meeting, BOR officials said that the construction goal is the fall of 2019.
• The duration for construction. When questioned, BOR officials said that construction season would be September 15 to April 15th.
• Impacts to existing uses, including livestock operations, and lambing and calving operations.
• Engineering design drawings. While there is a written description of project components, basic design drawings weren’t included in the EA, but were displayed during a presentation at the meeting.
• The words "private property" do not appear in the document. The agency’s map for the reservoir expansion clearly shows several parcels of private property that will be impacted by the new inundation.
The word "landowner" is mentioned only once, in the section where BOR noted: "A comment period and public meeting will be conducted to solicit comments on the Draft EA. Notices of the comment period and public meeting will be sent to shareholders, landowners, and local, state, and Federal agencies."
Livestock grazing and agricultural operations are only mentioned once in the 87-page document, in the EA’s "cumulative effects" section: "Grazing and agricultural practices would be expected to continue as they have for decades, with no cumulative impact from this Project. Any impacts from this work would be temporary in nature with no long-term impacts. Based on resource specialists’ review of the Proposed Action, Reclamation has determined that this action would not have a significant adverse cumulative effect on any resources."
In an interview Wednesday, Arambel expressed frustration that while he didn’t want to halt the project, proper process was not followed, and harm to his ranch operation aren’t being addressed.
"Fix me and I’ll be out of the way. Dirt for dirt: I want a trade, and that’s all – and that’s where we’ve been from day one. We’re not about dollars, we’re all about the land."
The WWDC-commissioned planning study for the project (completed earlier this year) noted, "Communication with the Dunton Sheep Company representative indicated they would entertain a potential land exchange to allow Reclamation or the State of Wyoming to own these inundated properties."
WWDC Deputy Director Jason Mead said in an interview Wednesday afternoon that while WWDC’s role in the project planning is primarily completed, his office will continue to serve as a go-between between Arambel and the State Land Office, which would have to approve of such a land exchange. Mead said that while there had been "roadblocks" in coming to an agreement, he was orchestrating a meeting between state officials and Arambel in attempt to resolve the impasse.
"I want to find the middle ground and see this project happen because it will provide big benefits for that local area, in my opinion," Mead said. He noted that the Big Sandy project falls within Governor Matt Mead’s "10 in 10" water development strategy, which calls for development of 10 reservoir projects in the state in 10 years.
WWDC’s Mead said, "We’re not in the business of impacting landowners. Eminent domain is not something we are going to pursue on this project."
The Big Sandy Reservoir, located about 10 miles north of Farson in both Sublette and Sweetwater counties, provides storage for irrigation, flood control, and recreation.
The Wyoming Water Development Commission is interested in increasing the storage capacity of the reservoir by raising the spillway crest by five feet, increasing total storage capacity (by 13,600 acre-feet) to 52,300 acre-feet. A toe drain and filter trench would be installed along the left abutment of the dam, a filter diaphragm would be installed around the outlet works, a cement-bentonite cutoff wall would be constructed through the crest of the dike, and since raising the reservoir would increase the water height on the existing dikes that are already experiencing erosion, additional riprap would be required. In addition, the project would replace the Big Sandy Feeder Canal headworks and six concrete drop structures.
Water Law & Private Property
Wyoming water development law 41-2-122 specifically provides for "Protection and rights of landowner":
"(a) The Wyoming water development commission shall include in the planning process at Level I notification to a landowner whose lands may be flooded or otherwise physically affected, as determined by the administrator. The commission shall include in the planning process at Level II consultation with any landowner whose land may be flooded or otherwise physically affected by a proposed water project and shall include a report on the proposed mitigation of landowner impacts as jointly identified by the commission and the landowner." (b) The Wyoming water development commission shall consult with and supply copies of reports and studies to any landowner whose land will be flooded or physically affected by any proposed water development project. The commission and any employees or other persons under the control of the commission shall mitigate any damages and disruption of the landowner's operations during the study phase including prevention of public nuisances and shall enter on private property only in the manner provided by W.S. 1-26-506 and shall also be subject to W.S. 1-26-507 and 1-26-508.
(c) In proceeding with Level III, construction and operation plans, the commission shall follow the requirements of the Wyoming Eminent Domain Act, shall negotiate in good faith with affected landowners and, in addition, shall attempt to mitigate damages which may occur from the impacts enumerated in subsection (a) of this section."