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In a demanding year, irrigators find ways to cope
In his 45th year irrigating the family farm north of Riverton with LeClair Irrigation District water, Dean Vonkrosigk has the last headgate on the 185-gate LeClair system. The Vonkrosigks have farmed the land since 1927. Photo by Randy Tucker

In a demanding year, irrigators find ways to cope

Jul 29, 2012 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

It wouldn't make much of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the story of this year's drought in Fremont County turns out to be one of cooperation between neighbors, political entities and ineffective management by the three irrigation districts serving rural Riverton.

While tales of angry encounters at the head gate are the stuff of rural legend, the reality is that this year's lack of rainfall has brought out the best in Western traditions among most people working with the limited water from the Wind River drainage.

85 years on the land

Riverton area farmer Dean Vonkrosigk's family has been relying on LeClair District irrigation water since the family moved onto the land in 1927. Vonkrosigk and his wife, Charlene, took over the farm in 1966, and they said this year has been a challenge in getting water.

Vonkrosigk and his neighbors have the last headgate on the far northeast end of the Leclair ditch.

Vonkrosigk said he irrigates pasture used by his daughter and son-in-law, Bret, and Laurie Gardner for their cattle herd.

The family uses a storage pond filled by the Leclair ditch to build head pressure for their own ditches. The pond, located on U.S. Hwy. 26 about eight miles north of Riverton, is a familiar seasonal sight, but this year it was empty, cracked and devoid of water.

"We irrigated on June 30 then went three weeks with no water at all," Vonkrosigk said.

A call to the Leclair District brought action by the water board.

Water commissioner Ray Blumenshine called a meeting of the board, and water began flowing into the pond July 21.

Getting water to the 185 headgates on the Leclair ditch is a study in water management.

"We have to keep turning the head gates down until we get water on the lower end," Blumenshine said. "A lot of people share and help each other, but some don't. Most of the guys try to help each other. We even called the city, the golf course and school district to cut back, and they did."

Midvale district

Midvale Irrigation District director Dick Johnson shared similar praise for the farmers in his district.

"The farmers have managed really well this year," Johnson said. "The Five Mile drainage is down. The waste water flow is lower because the farmers are managing so well. A big part of making this work is conservation on the farmers' part."

Better than forecast

The prediction last spring was for a dry 2012 with a snow pack much less than normal. The prediction led many to put fewer acres under production.

"It's done a lot better than we anticipated," Blumenshine said. "We left 50 acres aside because we thought there wouldn't be enough water."

Vonkrosigk said he made a similar decision this month in abandoning a small section of his land.

"Seven acres were burning up, but I'll water the others right now," Vonkrosigk said, "Its better to have that little piece stay dormant and take care of the rest."

Kinnear area farmer Marvin Schmidt raises hay, corn and beans on his land just west of Ocean Lake.

"I ran out of water on one 20-acre field, but they let me transfer, and they've upped the water," Schmidt said.

Schmidt is on the Midvale system, which uses a substantially different system of water allotment from LeClair or Riverton Valley. Each user is allocated 2 acre feet of water per acre of land for the season. Midvale measures the water allotted to each user, and when they exceed their limit, that's it.

Midvale has raised the allotment three times so far this season.

"We've got plenty of water. I have a pivot so it stretches a little over a lot," Schmidt said. "I can get by on two acre feet because of the pivot. You can cover more acres with a pivot. Corn takes a lot of water, but you can't say there is a crop that doesn't take a lot of water. We're going to be fine with Bull Lake and Morton nearly full."

Johnson said he is cognizant of the needs of farmers with crops that grow into September and October.

"We are cautiously optimistic," Johnson said. "In August and September we can drain Bull Lake pretty fast; it can take 90,000 acre feet in a month."

At present, Bull Lake is near capacity at 150,000 acre feet.

"We're purposely holding it back to leave a little room for a rain storm," Johnson said. "We anticipate releasing from Bull Lake within a week."

Water management is sometimes a guessing game, but there are tools that have aided the Midvale District in its calculations this season.

"Early in the season we didn't know where we were because of the (National Resources Conservation Service) reports on the snow pack," Johnson said. "We use a computer model designed by Jerry Dechert about 10 years ago that uses 30 years of data to analyze present situations, and it is an invaluable tool. The big thing to watch was how quickly the runoff occurred in the mountains. It was much better than we thought. It has turned out to be a better year than we anticipated, but we still have some time left."

Riverton district

Riverton Valley Irrigation's Wayne Neil shared the same reservations earlier in the year.

"We didn't know how much water there would be by the end of the summer," Neil said. "It didn't look good at the start of the season."

Neil is in a unique situation as the 22-year director of the Riverton Valley system. His farm has the last head gate on the Riverton irrigation ditch, and it is easy to see how the system is working.

"The situation looks good right now," Neil said. "We should have enough water."

Blumenshine concurs on predicting usage for the next two months.

"It doesn't look too bad," Blumenshine said. "We're buying water from Boysen since Worland has an earlier water right on the river. They have a free flow right on the Wind River."

"If LeClair is buying water we're usually not too far behind them," Neil said.

Riparian rights are a tradition in the arid conditions of Wyoming agriculture, and the person with the earliest date on his water right takes precedence. Worland has an earlier claim than anyone in Fremont County, with Riverton Valley and LeClair having priority over Midvale by 10 years, but that doesn't look like it will be an issue this year.

'Crazy spring'

"I don't know that this is the worst we've had. Grazing is ugly and in bad shape, but the irrigation district is fine," Schmidt said. "It was a crazy spring, hot then cold."

Vonkrosigk said he's relieved to see the system working again.

"I appreciate the effort the water board made to get water all the way down here. They worked very hard to get this done," Vonkrosigk said. "It is an amazing system getting water to all these places."

With the end of the growing season, the question of upstream storage remains an issue for the following year.

"We like to go into the winter with some reserve for next year," Johnson said. "We don't want to pull Bull Lake completely down."

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