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The increased cost of the proposed Alkali Dam near Hyattville has rendered the project “close to not making sense,” the speaker of the Wyoming House told state water developers earlier this year.

Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) made that assessment May 8 after hearing that the estimate to build the 100-foot high, half-mile long earthen structure is now $113 million. That’s more than three times the $35 million cost estimated in 2017.

The Alkali Dam would impound 6,000 acre feet of water that would be used by 33 irrigators for late-season irrigation of 13,000 acres. Wyoming would lend the benefitted landowners a total of $2.1 million and pay for the rest.

The Wyoming Water Development Office, which is designing the project for a private irrigation district, is having difficulty justifying the expense.

“We’ll do everything we can to try to help you. But there's certain things we can't do.”

Lee Craig, Wyoming Water Development Commission member

“I think it's important to try to understand the price of what we're doing, because, ultimately, that comes back to the cost-benefit ratio,” Sommers said at the meeting.

Cost-benefit rules govern how much the state can pay.

“I'm all for doing water projects,” Sommers said. “But it's got to make sense in the end, too. And this is getting dangerously close to not making sense.”

$127 million above estimates

Alkali Creek is one of two proposed Big Horn County dams whose original cost estimates are now collectively about $127 million off-base. The Upper Leavitt Reservoir expansion is estimated to cost $89 million, up from the original $39.8 million.

The state outlines what “makes sense,” as Sommers put it, in its criteria for funding reservoirs. The Wyoming Water Development Commission can give grants “for the full cost of the storage capacity [of any given reservoir] but not to exceed public benefits as computed by the commission.”

As computed in May “the public benefits [amount to] only $104 [million]-$105 million,” for the now-$113 million Alkali Creek project, Water Development Office Director Jason Mead told lawmakers and water commission members.

Jason Mead describes the proposed Alkali Dam above the reservoir site near Hyattville during a tour in 2015. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./Pedrodiniz)

The cost-benefit ratio could be improved if some of the project’s costs are attributed to elements other than the irrigation supply itself, according to discussions at the meeting.

A principal example is the $30 million cost of converting a ditch that would fill the reservoir into a buried pipeline. “Should [$30 million] be attributed to the project — raising the cost and putting the public-benefit ratio at risk — or counted as mitigation?” Mead asked as he outlined potential accounting options.

Another way of improving the cost-benefit ratio would be to attribute more value to benefits, irrigators said. The Water Development Commission should be liberal in its assessment of public benefits, including birdwatching, irrigators said.

That could be tricky.

“I understand there's things we can't necessarily quantify — birdwatching and things like that,” Mead said. “We can always get creative on those things. We're just trying to be consistent with how we've looked at other projects.”

To reduce state costs, Wyoming sought but failed to get a federal grant to fund part of the development. The Bureau of Reclamation rejected the request “because of concerns with economics,” among other things, Derrick Thompson, an engineer with consultant Trihydro, told the panel.

Undeterred, Wyoming is seeking another federal grant from funds earmarked for a “watershed protection and flood prevention program,” he said. It’s uncertain whether an irrigation project would qualify for the program, let alone prevail in a competitive application process, Thompson said.

Cecil Mullins’ vision

For years, Worland native and irrigator Cecil Richard Mullins watched the nearby Nowood River, fed by runoff from the Bridger and Bighorn mountains, swell in the spring and dry up in the fall. In 2007, he “wanted to figure out a way where we could capture that early spring runoff and actually put it to use when the river went dry,” Mead told the panel.

Mead met Mullins and his fellow irrigators and told them it would cost $1,000 to apply for a state-funded watershed study, a necessary beginning for any reservoir construction.

“Everybody was pulling out $20 bills by the time we got done to come up with $1,000,” Mead said of the meeting.

A pivot irrigation system on the Mercer ranch near Hyattville near the proposed site of the Alkali Creek Dam. The reservoir would flood some of the land in the background. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./Pedrodiniz)

Mullins died in 2019, but his $20 investment has grown. “We've spent probably $5 million over the last however many years it's been — since 2010 — to get to this point,” Mead told the panel.

“We're about 50% into the design,” he said, “and needing to acquire easements.”

But landowners on whose property various ditches, canals, pipelines or the reservoir itself would lie have asked for design changes — like the $30 million ditch-to-pipeline conversion.

Landowners at the upper end of the reservoir are also worried about public use of the reservoir near their property. Therefore developers would build an embankment to impound a small pool at that end of the reservoir.

The pool would provide “some additional benefits to those landowners to offset some of the impacts,” Trihydro’s Thompson said. Yet “we're still struggling to come to agreements with many of the landowners,” his Trihydro colleague, Mark Donner, said.

Irrigators’ share

Inflation, geologic surprises, lighter-than-expected embankment material and the design changes add to costs. But irrigators have not pledged to pay more than their $2.1 million loan.

“That's what everybody voted on,” said John Joyce, an irrigation district member. “The operating costs are starting to mount here,” he said, ticking off maintenance, annual rent for federal property and other things.

“I'm not saying it can't be higher,” he said of irrigators’ contributions, increasing the debt would require a vote among district irrigators that hasn’t been proposed.

Water Development Commission Vice Chair Lee Craig told irrigators the state will do “everything we can to try to help you.

“But there's certain things we can't do or certain things that you guys will have to do,” Craig said. “And hopefully, working together, we can get through this.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for Pedrodiniz. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@pedrodiniz.com or (307)...

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  1. Maybe Pedrodiniz should talk to the landowners who oppose the project to find out why we oppose it. Find out about the threats, harassment, and intimidation we've had to endure. Ask why the sheriff's department won't take any reports for destruction and damage to fences and property. Learn about the land grab being made to push this project through. Find out why some landowners are allowed to violate easements set according to state law established in 1965. Or are some landowners too big to be bound by law? Maybe we should rename the state from the Cowboy State to the Robber Baron State.

  2. Just say NO. Everyone knows this project is a boondoggle. If 33 irrigators want this, they should pay for it. Take a look. Some don't want people around their area, but they want the public to pay for it. Sound familiar?

  3. Sad but expected thinking out of the benefactors of the project want my & your tax money to build a lake. Than have nerve enough to say they want to keep us out or off of it. I say F$@K them.

  4. This is total bullshit this is the Wyoming way give to the rich I thought this was supposed to be the equality state well we're is the equality in this project what are you doing for the rest of the residences in the state hand out afew million to the rest of us shame on you is this what we elected you for ?

  5. A new variation on the old theme of water projects in the west. Only a few of them ever made economic sense, it was all horse trading and politics. The Bureau of Reclamation built about a hundred bad cash projects. This project missed the heyday of dam building and construction prices are now too high even with heavy subsidization by the state and feds. Similar costs are coming to many existing dam owners with aging infrastructure to rehabilitate. However, dams need to be evaluated on a rubric of societal, ecological, and economic value. Does our society in the west need dams currently? You bet.

  6. Very interesting and good comments. It is reassuring that Wyoming Water Development is looking at cost/benefit criteria as part of their evaluation. The cost per irrigator of over $3 million each is very concerning. The Big Horn Basin is semi-arid/desert land and the ag community is highly dependent upon irrigation of barley, alfalfa, sugar beets, beans and corn - without irrigation most of the basin would be desert grazing land with limited water along the rivers. Creation of the existing irrigation districts has brought tens of thousands of acres under irrigation by converting desert sage brush terrain into valuable irrigated property. It has taken almost a century to build up the soil in the previous desert. This project is proposing to bring an additional 13,000 acres under water which is a significant acreage - but at what cost??? Only way to resolve the issue is with cost/benefit studies. Please note that excess flows of the Nowater River which we do not utilize in Wyoming simply flow into the Big Horn River, Yellowtail and the Yellowstone River in Montana and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the cost of utilizing the waters we allow to leave the state is extremely expensive - glad I don't have to make the final decision on these dams.

  7. How can you justify spending that much money for special interests ? It's already verging into criminal territory when you try to justify a guaranteed money loser
    Today it's 90 million , by tomorrow it'll jump to 110 million ...

  8. Color this proposal and the North Fork Damm proposal as, “over the top stupid”.

  9. I notice on all dam proposals, no one is looking into a multi-use dam. One producing power as well as using the dam for irrigation. I know it would cost more, but it would also benefit a lot more people.

  10. But our state absolutely cannot afford to accept federal monies to pay most of the cost to expand Medicaid. After all, that would only help several thousand low income and disabled citizens and our medical facilities. What a boondoggle these programs can be when it comes to considering agriculture needs, while ignoring greater needs.

  11. Thirty five million, who did the original estimate? That person or entity is wrong, fire them. It also depends on the criteria by which that 35 million came about. And i'm sure the criteria has increased and changed to get to the hundred and thirteen million. So Why wasn't all the criteria given To obtain the cost estimate in 2017.
    Or has the criteria changed In seven years. And the reality is, this dam is going to cost a lot more than a hundred and thirteen million when they're done.Every large construction project of this scale always has overruns. What is the benefit cost per acre of irrigating these limited amounts of irrigators as compared to other parts of the state of wyoming.

  12. Some disturbing points to this article - obviously the cost ($113,000,000) and when you divide that by 33 users (irrigators), that's $3.42 MILLION per user! Another eye opening mention in this write-up is that fact that though virtually all of this project is funded by federal (all of us) money and much of the project site is on federal (public) land, some of the users are concerned about the public's use of this reservoir!? Obviously another Wyoming welfare scheme masqueraded as “rugged individualists” trying to retain water in the State yet the public has to foot the bill and then keep off the reservoir and adjacent lands.

    1. Or any other crop without irrigation of some sort. The soil & landscape in Wyoming is naturally by itself is not suitable for bountiful, abundant harvesting of even the hardy alfalfa without irrigation, muchless water hungry corn.

  13. At this price, it would be cheaper to buy out these ranchers, and turn their land into state land.

    1. This is the most sensible of solutions to offer when these kinds of boondoggles raise their heads. The world DOES NOT need more hay, alfalfa, or corn.