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Officials are considering building a dam in Medicine Bow National Forest

Federal and state officials are outlining plans and soliciting public comment for a potential concrete dam project in the Medicine Bow National Forest. The dam would create a new reservoir in the Colorado River Basin.

Though the water storage facility would be just 10,000 acre feet – much smaller than other reservoirs in the region – the dam would still tower over 250 feet and block a wooded canyon on a tributary of the Little Snake River, according to WyoFile. Building the structure would cost around $80 million, according to a 2017 cost estimate of the project and WyoFile, and the state would pay for the majority of it.

State Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) managed water and natural resources in the Little Snake River Basin for 32 years and is in favor of the project. He said maintaining storage at high elevations is a smart strategy to avoid water loss downstream from evaporation and other use, especially as drought conditions elevate throughout the Mountain West.

“Rather than these giant main-stem reservoirs, you want these smaller storage facilities scattered across the basin,” Hicks said.

The reservoir would primarily serve several dozen irrigators by releasing runoff water later in the year and providing more consistent resources.

“There will be some minor increase in consumptive use associated with that, but there's all those other tangible benefits associated with doing that in a declining environment,” Hicks said.

Other benefits Hicks outlined include providing vital wetland habitat for local wildlife by releasing water more evenly, as well as serving recreational interests.

To build the dam, the state is proposing a land swap of around 6,000 acres with the federal government to simplify land management and the review process. The public is invited to comment on the plan.

Critics argue the project could harm the environment and lead to greater water consumption in the Colorado River Basin, which is already strained. The Little Snake River meanders through Wyoming and Colorado before joining the Yampa River near Dinosaur National Monument.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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