Upper North Platte Valley ranchers win on Pathfinder Reservoir water issue

May 8, 2009
by WLJ
Upper North Platte Valley ranchers win on Pathfinder Reservoir water issue

The Pathfinder Reservoir, with its headwaters in the mountains of northern Colorado, is the oldest reservoir along the North Platte River. And, it has been a hotly debated topic among parties in the three states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Among the two most contentious points in the Nebraska v. Wyoming lawsuit were endangered species located in Nebraska and the never-completed Deer Creek Dam and Reservoir Project in Wyoming.

Also, the Pathfinder Modification Project (PMP) was stipulated as part of the settlement of the Nebraska v. Wyoming lawsuit. Recently, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) attempted to push through a petition for a change of use for 53,493 acre-feet of water in the Pathfinder Reservoir and to have the new users awarded a 1904 priority date. The attempted change of use was met with strong opposition from the Upper North Platte Valley Water Conservation Association (UNPVWCA).

Joe Glode, area rancher, business owner, and president of the UNPVWCA, stressed the need to carefully scrutinize any changes to water law, as the consequences of such changes can affect people in agriculture and beyond. If the petition for change of use had been granted by the Wyoming State Board of Control, the Upper Platte Valley would have dried up he claims.

Critical habitat for many species of wildlife would have been destroyed. Return flow to the North Platte River would have dramatically decreased, disrupting fishing, floating, and other recreational activities for residents and visitors alike.

And ranching activities would have come to an abrupt halt as most of the area’s ranchers depend on water from Pathfinder Reservoir to carry out irrigation practices on their land. The efforts of the UN- PVWCA and their legal consul—to prove that there simply was not any extra water in Pathfinder Reservoir and changing the use of 53,493 acre-feet of water would only take it away from one party and reassign it to another—were successful. The argument brought forth by the federal petition was that the objective of the project is to simply recapture storage space in the reservoir that had been lost to sedimentation. The U.S. petition never stated that a change of that type would not cause injury to upstream water rights, but instead stated “that the benefits of granting this petition outweigh any potential injury to any affected appropriator resulting from the requested partial change of use for water rights”.

However, the UNPVWCA upheld the assertion that regardless of how the water stored in the project is labeled, the new uses cannot be made under the original 1904 priority date without the risk of serious injury to upstream water rights. The injury to upstream water right holders would have been devastating. If such water rights were taken away from users in the Upper North Platte Valley, subdivision of the ruined ranchlands would be likely.

“The loss of open space and the loss of wildlife habitat is what people who are outside of agriculture can really identify with. When you ask people why they live here (the Upper North Platte Valley) their responses always lead back to open space, wildlife, and recreational activities,” said

Glode. “Without water to supply the ranches, the other quality of life benefits cannot exist either. The people who are within agriculture already understand what is at stake for all of us in this area.” Ranchers, residents, and tourists alike were relieved that a petition to change a portion of Pathfinder Reservoir water has reached a Stipulation and Settlement Agreement in which the status quo for the area’s water rights has been preserved.

The intention of the change of use was to identify 33,493 acre-feet of water for fish, wildlife and environmental purposes to be used in the state of Nebraska.

The remaining 20,000 acre-feet was intended to be put into a “municipal account” which would have been made available to the Wyoming Water Development Office under contract with U.S., then leased back to Wyoming municipalities in times of shortage.

Another planned use for the remaining 20,000 acre-feet was to have supplemental water to provide replacement water for shortages for wells and tributaries in Goshen County, WY. Already, 80 percent of the water held in the Pathfinder Reservoir goes out of Wyoming to service users in Nebraska and most of the depletions impacting the endangered species in Nebraska have come from downstream users, according to studies in the region.

Ranchers and residents alike are adamant about protecting not only agriculture in the area, but also the quality of life for everyone who lives or visits the Upper Platte Valley communities of Encampment and Saratoga, WY. — Heidi Suttee, WLJ Regional Correspondent