SHERIDAN — A recently introduced bipartisan bill, cosponsored by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, would seek to simplify the permitting process for reservoir construction in the state.
America’s Water Infrastructure Act is designed to increase water storage capacity, provide flood protection and maintain inland waterways across the country. In Wyoming, however, it would primarily affect the construction of reservoirs.
“One of the big hold ups with being able to move forward on reservoir projects has been federal permitting,” said Harry LaBonde, the director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission. “So this bill offers some opportunities for better coordination and streamlining.”
LaBonde said construction projects that take place in U.S. waterways need to be permitted under the National Environmental Policy Act. Those permits by themselves can take a long time, but the process can be further complicated if the project passes through federal lands. Then, in addition to the NEPA permit, the project would have to be allowed by whichever federal agency manages those lands.
As an example, LaBonde said the High Savery Reservoir, which was the most recently constructed major reservoir in the state, took about 15 years to secure permitting.
In 2015, Gov. Matt Mead announced a plan to build 10 reservoirs in the next 10 years. LaBonde said the WWDC has identified 15 reservoir projects it would like to build throughout the state.
LaBonde explained that the reservoirs planned are mostly smaller and would address irrigation needs for agriculture. In Wyoming, several parts of the state only get 12 to 14 inches of precipitation in a year. When agriculture producers in these regions need to divert water for irrigation, they often find that as the summer wears on, water flows diminish; sometimes by late summer, the water needed for irrigation has dried up. The smaller, localized reservoirs the state is looking to build in these regions would capture water during the early summer months and release it in the drier months to ensure there is water for irrigation all season.
The bill also intends to address broader water infrastructure improvement, but the specific effect it would have on Wyoming in that regard is less clear. Keith Guille, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, offered general support for the bill.
“From our standpoint, anytime you have increased funding to our Wyoming communities to upgrade water systems, be it for drinking or handling waste water, that’s a good thing,” Guille said. “And it will certainly help with public health and the environment.”