Green River Running High And Dry

Dec 4, 2015

Trumpeter swans winter on the open waters below Fontanelle Reservoir.
Credit Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge

The shadows of cottonwood trees grow long as the sun sets over Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Wyoming. A perfect time to spot wildlife on the Green River. Among the reeds, I see a white patch with a long neck. A trumpeter swan. Refuge project leader Tom Koerner passes me a pair of binoculars.

“That's probably a single bird and right in this wetland unit we just drove by there's three different pairs that nest in here,” Koerner says. 

In the next few weeks, over 300 trumpeter swans will arrive to winter here, he tells me. That's because the river doesn't freeze up on this stretch of the Green River, thanks to the gush of water flowing off Fontanelle Dam just upstream.

“It usually stays ice free down to our headquarters site here,” he says. “And then it'll freeze up below that all the way down to Flaming Gorge.

That flow could get even stronger in the future. With the West struggling with drought for a decade and a half, it’s put a serious strain on states along the Colorado River. And Wyoming is in a unique position since the Green River flowing from the Wind River Range, only 90 miles north of here, is actually the main branch of the Colorado. It’s one reason Governor Matt Mead has launched his 10-in-10 Water Strategy. He wants to build 10 small reservoirs in the state in the next ten years to save water for Wyoming’s use before it flows away to other states.

Major dams in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River.
Credit Colorado River Water Users Association

One of the governor's plans is to finish Fontanelle Reservoir. Back in 1965, they only completed half the project when they realized the original purpose of the reservoir—to irrigate the lands below the dam for crops—was unrealistic in this arid location.

Mead's policy advisor Nephi Cole explains what needs to be done to complete the dam. “The armoring on Fontanelle does not extend down the full face of the dam. It only extends to the part where they've anticipated wave action. Because it's not fully utilized, you end up with what we call a dead pool in the bottom of the dam.”

So, right now, it's storing only 120,000 acre feet of water for Wyoming’s use when it could store almost triple that, or 340,000 acre feet. Cole says spending the $10-million to cover the full face of the dam with armor would be worth the money, satisfying one of the governor's big goals: to use or store all the Colorado River water the state has a right to under the Colorado River Compact.

“We have a right to use roughly 14 percent of the Upper Basin water on the Colorado system,” Cole says.

The state uses almost 600,000 acre feet, mostly for irrigation in the Green River Basin. But still, almost 250,000 acre feet of Wyoming’s share of the river just washes downstream every year. That’s two Fontanelle Reservoirs, just whoosh, downstream to Utah and Arizona.

“You look at a lot of states on the Colorado River system and they're struggling to find more water,” Cole says. “And in Wyoming, we actually have access to the water. We have the tools to be able to use the water if we wanted to, but we haven't necessarily figured out the best way to use it and the highest bang for the buck.”

And the law of the river is, use it or lose it.

So the governor wants to capture more of the Green River, not only in Fontanelle Reservoir, but by building two brand new reservoirs on the river's tributaries: Middle Piney and West Fork Battle Creek Reservoirs, not to mention enlarging Big Sandy and Viva Naughton Reservoirs. Combined they’d catch another 27,000 acre feet of Green River water. Mead’s 10-in10 plan is estimated to cost somewhere around $350 million. Cole says some of that money has been set aside already.

Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell says, it’s counterintuitive, but it is still a good time to build dams in the high country. “It's interesting these days. It's easy to be schizophrenic in the Colorado River Basin.”  

Schizophrenic because the more the lower states suffer, the more the upper states are motivated to hoard their allotments.

“And that's because at the same time that we know we have unused apportionment,” he says, “we also are preparing for drought management and preparing for the day when maybe the Colorado does not quickly recover from the drought it's been in for 15 years.”

Tyrrell says, sure, the compact does allow Wyoming to make money diverting water to other Upper Basin states, like our thirsty neighbor Colorado with its fast growing population. But as for quenching the thirst of drought-stricken states in the Lower Basin, it’s not possible. Tyrrell says the compact does not allow upper states to divert to lower ones.

“There's this notion that under the compact that what we have is wet water that we can put in a shopping bag and sell to Nevada,” he explains. “You can't do that under the law of the river. You're not given that water in a bag. You're given its use.”

The sun goes down over the Green River at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Back at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, Project Leader Tom Koerner says in 2012, he personally saw what happens when only three inches of rain falls on these high plains wetlands. Much of the surrounding sagebrush lost its leaves and wildlife had to migrate farther for food.

“Yeah, water in a desert,” he says with a laugh as he looks out at the river where a bald eagle hunts kokanee salmon. “Very important. You look at Google Earth from a photo in the summers. It’s just this little band of green coming through the desert.”

But if headwater states like Wyoming start stockpiling their share of the Colorado, it’s not just desert cities that will suffer. The river's natural ecology could start to feel the heat, too.

But we’ll talk about that in an upcoming story about new ideas for protecting river ecology in times of drought, when our series on the Green River continues.