SHERIDAN — A small body of water noted by a Catholic missionary in his chronicles in 1840 has become a hotly contested and complicated lake over its lifetime. Located about 10 miles north of Buffalo, Lake DeSmet has had ranchers, irrigators, boaters, fishers, miners, industrial development dreamers and several boards of commissioners vying for its nearly 235,000 acre feet of water.
The different user groups — agricultural, industrial, municipal and recreational — have managed to share most the time but ownership and operational upkeep has continued to change hands.
Most recently, in November 2012, Sheridan County and Johnson County — the two remaining counties that comprised the Lake DeSmet Counties Coalition Joint Powers Board after Campbell County withdrew in 2004 — decided to split ways and dissolve the county coalition since agreement could not be reached on a lease option with the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.
Desiring to secure Lake DeSmet as one of the most important reservoir trout fisheries in northeast Wyoming, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission had offered to pay $2.9 million to the counties coalition board to lease a majority of the shoreline and surface of the lake for recreational use. The funds would come from Sport Fish Restoration funds the state had received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and would be split between the two counties.
However, the two counties disagreed on terms of the lease — Johnson County particularly disliked the 99-year term — throughout several meetings with the Game and Fish Commission, said Sheridan County Commissioner Bob Rolston, who served as secretary for the counties coalition board before it dissolved.
“Johnson County ran backwards on it,” Rolston said. “We seemed to draw a line in the sand with Sheridan County on one side and Johnson County on the other side.”
Meanwhile, the Game and Fish Commission threatened to spend the $2.9 million elsewhere if the counties didn’t submit a workable lease by November 2012.
The deadline passed without a lease option being submitted, but the funds were not spent elsewhere, and Johnson County submitted a lease option to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission in January. It was forwarded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is currently under consideration. A decision is expected to be made by July.
“I think it’s making giant steps forward,” Rolston said.
Those steps forward, however, likely will not include Sheridan County.
An agreement between Sheridan and Johnson counties is attached to the lease and will go into effect if the lease is accepted.
The agreement states that:
• The Lake DeSmet Counties Coalition will be terminated and dissolved.
• Sheridan County will sell its 45 percent interest in lake assets to Johnson County for a total of $500,000 to be paid in five installments of $100,000 annually by November of each year beginning in 2013.
• Johnson County will assume full ownership and operation of the lake and will be sole participant in the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission lease.
• Johnson County will pay in full the debt owed by the counties coalition to the Wyoming Water Development Commission for evaluations and renovation projects conducted on Lake DeSmet by the coalition in the last 10 years.
• Sheridan County will own 2,500 acre-feet of priority water rights to withdraw, lease, sell, exchange and use annually at no cost and with reasonable access granted by Johnson County.
While questions have been raised about whether it was smart of Sheridan County to sell its water rights when water is scarce and may be needed in the future, Rolston said he didn’t believe it would be a problem.
“Twenty-five hundred acre feet is quite a bit of water. It’s a great savings account,” Rolston said.
As long as the water in the lake is replenished by the rivers that feed it, Sheridan County will have access to water that can be used for irrigation, municipal shortages, leases and any other needs the county identifies.
Rolston said Sheridan County is glad to be rid of the liability of managing such a large property with no income to support it. Rolston also said Sheridan County irrigators’ water rights are protected in the lease.
Most importantly, he added that the lease and the agreement between the two counties will ensure that Lake DeSmet is maintained as a public fishery and recreation area.