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Construction ends on reservation's $8 million irrigation rehabilitation

Jul 16, 2014 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

It has taken nearly $8 million to complete rehabilitation work on several diversion structures on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The project consisted of upgrades on dilapidated diversion structures, canals and laterals that service more than 35,000 irrigated acres for land owned by tribal and non-tribal entities.

Assessments showed that nearly $90 million in repair work on the Wind River Irrigation System was needed to sustain crop quality, become self-sufficient and prevent catastrophic failure and the loss of hundreds of thousands of fish.

Tribal Water Engineer Mitch Cottenoir described the improvements made on the aging system during the Wyoming Legislature's Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting June 10.

"It's ancient, and it's probably the worst irrigation system in the western United States," he said.

Resolutions were enacted to pursue improvements in the systems through the joint efforts of the Wind River Water Resource Control Board, the Tribal Water Engineer Office and the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Joint Business Council. Funding was finally granted by the Wyoming Water Development Commission, and Sen. Mike Enzi helped secure matching support to begin work on the system.

The Tribal Water Engineer Office operates under the tribal water code established by the joint business council.

"We're in charge of managing the water resources in the reservation and protecting the water rights of each individual," Cottenoir said.

No help

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for the delivery of water on the reservation and operates under federal codes.

Cottenoir said the BIA has no funds to repair the system, and funds from water users are allocated mostly for operations and administration. The BIA cannot solicit money from the federal government for construction but becomes the owner of the structures once repairs are completed.

The BIA posed other problems for the system, said Northern Arapaho Tribe liaison Gary Collins. He explained that other agencies had to seek funding and bring attention to the repairs needed. He said the rehabilitation project was completed without the help of the BIA, and the 104 irrigation projects pending for work have not been completed.

"Some of their guidelines has impeded the water board from actually doing the work," Collins said. "That's why we went ... directly to our congressional people."

The "lack of action" from the BIA led people to act on their own, he added. For instance,

residents of Crowheart formed their own water user association to operate delivery.

Heather Morrison of the Ray Canal Water User Association said the group has a cooperative agreement with the BIA that pays $7.50 per acre to the agency for its administrative costs while the association keeps a little more so it can handle operations and maintenance.

"It's obviously not enough to repair a complete dilapidated system," Morrison said. "We have been able to hire our own ditch riders when in the past couple years we haven't even had any ditch riders in that area from the BIA."

She called it a "marked" improvement that adds to the increased work the members do on a daily basis. She added that the association cannot request funding from the Wyoming Water Development Commission, because the group still is part of the Wind River Irrigation System.

Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, also told the committee that many water users are elderly people who cannot afford to pay operations and maintenance costs to the BIA and lose the opportunity to irrigate and earn money from their land.

Tour

Cottenoir led a tour for committee members, tribal officials, department staff and community members at the Ray Canal Diversion and Ray Canal Fish Screen structures in Fort Washakie. He pointed out the new head gates and fish ladder that helps fish move up the stream. He also showed the fish screen that prevents fish from going through the irrigation canal.

"It was estimated that we were losing about 400,000 fish a year," Cottenoir said.

A contract between the BIA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows for two summer employees to clean debris in the canal and clear access for fish and flow of water.

Money collected from water users is used to maintain the head gates that divide the flow of water. The Tribal Water Engineer Office is responsible for the fish screens.

A new wing wall and dam also were installed. The Ray Canal serves water to 10,000 acres. Excess water from the stream ends up at the Boysen and Washakie reservoirs. Cottenoir said the excess water could be captured and stored if there were an adequate storage unit on site.

"Washakie Dam doesn't have the capacity to store enough water," he said, adding that water availability for water users usually ends by early July.

"This is where the state money needs to be spent," Sen. Paul Barnard said as he looked at the structure.

Other improvements

Some structures that received repairs and were identified as "in critical need" were Coolidge- Trout Creeks, Johnstown Diversion, Lefthand Diversion, Lefthand Waste, Ray Canal Diversion, Ray Canal Fish Screen, North Fork Chute, Willow Creek Diversion and Meadow Creek Diversion structures.

During the committee meeting, project manager Jason Mead of the Wyoming Water Development Commission reported on reservoir studies throughout the Big Wind River and Little Wind River. He said studies are expected to begin soon to determine water shortages and water needs.

"Reservoirs aren't easy to get built," Mead told the committee. "They take time (and) perseverance."

Cottenoir said his office will continue to seek funding and pursue new water storage sites.

"We really want to move forward," he said. "It's a need for our people."