The collapse in July of a section of irrigation tunnel on the Fort Laramie Canal in Goshen County is just the latest in a series of disasters caused by what members of the state’s Select Water Committee and Water Development Commission called aging infrastructure.
And it won’t be the last example, said Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Powell, last week during a joint meeting of those two entities at the Hampton Inn in Buffalo. It’s leading Hicks and Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devil’s Tower, to promise to draft legislation, which could have wide-ranging impact – from towns to irrigators across Wyoming – on how the Equality State responds to disasters of this kind.
During a joint work session last month, a delegation from Goshen County brought their plight in front of the group, prompting Hicks to bring the idea of an emergency fund to the discussion. This is the third such disaster of this magnitude in three years, Hicks said, illustrating what he sees as a problem that’s only going to get worse.
“These things will continue to happen,” Hicks told the assembled legislators and water commissioners. “And they’re going to happen more often. These are people’s lives we’re dealing with.”
Hicks’ idea involved making possible the release of state Water Development Commission funds – but only with approval of the governor – to help irrigation districts or municipalities cover the costs of recovery after a disaster. The commission currently has about $63 million in just one of three accounts, earmarked to large water projects, members were told earlier in the meeting.
Once there’s a state determination of an emergency, the commission would be given the ability to act, releasing funds to help ameliorate the impacts. Driskill, however, said he would prefer to see something akin to the state’s Emergency Fire Suppression account, where counties pay an annual “fee” for access to funds from the state to battle wildfires that start within their boundaries.
Counties may opt out of the fire suppression account – 21 of 23 counties in Wyoming currently contribute annually – Driskill said. The same system could be set up for water disaster relief, he said.
“So, if you want to opt in to the ‘insurance policy/emergency deal,’ then you’d have some skin in the game,” Driskill said.
But Zach Byram, district manager for the Clear Creek Conservation District in Johnson County, isn’t sure such a program would benefit most local irrigators. The way he understood the initial discussions, only irrigation districts or improvement districts would be eligible to get money from the emergency fund.
“The majority of our irrigators in Johnson County aren’t in an irrigation district or improvement district,” Byram said. “There would be funds available, but they wouldn’t be able to apply for it.”
That said, Byram believes irrigators he works with would probably be in favor of establishing some type of emergency fund. While the scope of the disaster in Goshen County probably couldn’t happen here, he said, that doesn’t mean producers can get complacent regarding their water supply.
Irrigation systems across Wyoming are at or exceeding 100 years old, Byram said, and are nearing the end of what could be considered their normal lifespan. Overall, more than $1 billion in “fixes” have been identified in water and irrigation systems across the state, he said.
“And in Johnson County, in our area, our irrigation system is that old,” he said. “That’s more in the ditches, but when you start talking about head gates and siphons, they’re not that old, but they are reaching the end of their useful life. Could we have something bad happen? Yes. Would it be at that (Goshen County) scale? No.”
Both Hicks and Driskill know firsthand the potential scope for water-related disasters. Hicks got involved when flooding threatened Riverton. Driskill worked with city officials in Sundance when a municipal water tank slid off a hill.
The Sundance incident “cost a little over a million dollars,” Driskill said. “They have 700 (water) users. You start talking $1,500 per water user, even with a 10-year amortization – it gets pretty pricy.”
Driskill’s idea would be to levy a small surcharge on every irrigator or irrigation district in the state. Municipalities, too, would be given the option to opt into the fund. That way, Driskill said, if an aging water main in downtown Buffalo were to fail, meaning a need to tear up streets to repair it, there could be help available from the state.
“I think it’s fair to say, ‘Look, if you want to get into these programs and you want to get bailed out, show us a little bit you can afford it,’ rather than us trying to extract money afterwards. I envision to see more million-dollar failures,” Driskill said.
Water commission funds are finite, Driskill said. And if they start pulling money out to pay for disasters, planned commission projects might have to be postponed.
The solution probably lies somewhere in the middle, Driskill and Hicks said, with a hybrid between water commission funding and user contributions. But, regardless of how it’s paid for, something has to be done, Hicks said
Despite disagreeing on how it should be paid for, both Driskill and Hicks promised to draft the legislation to get it done. Hicks said that, as chairman of the Select Water Committee, he would work with his staff and attorneys from the Legislative Services Office to start the process in the near future.
“I’ve been cogitating for three years on this, after the Riverton disaster,” he said. “We should have taken action two years ago – this is going to be a recurring theme.
“We’ve got over a billion dollars of aging water infrastructure, just on the agriculture side, in the state of Wyoming,” Hicks said. “We’ve got aging infrastructure in our municipalities, too. The chance we’re going to have more of these catastrophic failures increases every year we don’t start to get after this.”
Byram’s not sure what Johnson County irrigators would think about being tapped to help finance the emergency fund.
“Anytime you start asking people to pay more money, there’s going to be a bit of a small uprising,” Byram said. “But producers and irrigators in Wyoming realize they’re on an antiquated system. They’d be the ones who could benefit from this. I definitely think it would be a great idea to have an emergency fund available to help folks deal with large-scale situations.”