Luke Todd brought up excellent points in his recent op-ed on the issues facing Buffalo in regards to additional development, and the stresses it will add to our existing water supply. I would like to continue the conversation on the importance of increasing and protecting our water supply.
Wyoming Water Law is based on the doctrine of prior appropriation or “first in time, first in right”. Meaning the first person to put water to beneficial use has the first right to use the water. During times of water shortage, a senior appropriator may make an official “call” on the creek. At this point, junior appropriators upstream have their diversions regulated down or entirely off. Consequently, senior water rights are limited, and exceptionally valuable. Water shortages for the city of Buffalo are nothing new, and were even noted in 1899 by Elwood Mead (Wyoming’s First State Engineer) in his paper “Water-right Problems of the Bighorn Mountains.”
The City of Buffalo holds several senior water rights that have been converted to municipal use. They also own several junior water rights that are regulated off most years. When their junior rights are regulated off, Tie Hack Reservoir water is released to cover this deficit. The proposed wells west of town are intended to be an alternate point of diversion for existing surface water rights, not a new source of water. Should there be a contamination event in Clear Creek, the City would be able to divert their municipal supply from the wells, rather than the creek, and prevent contaminants such as sediment from damaging infrastructure.
The City of Buffalo’s water needs are only going to increase. Population growth will increase reliance on Tie Hack Reservoir. It is imperative that the City consider every avenue for additional water supply. This is particularly true as new subdivisions are considered and annexed into the City. Senior water rights are a limited commodity. As additional lands are annexed in, the water rights associated with those lands should be converted to municipal supply so that the City is able to utilize that water.