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Where Has All the Water Gone?

by Hope Sieck

Wind River Below Riverton Valley Irrigation Headgate

Each summer, a section of the Wind River runs dry. A river is not like a pipe or irrigation canal, so no water in the river means a lot more than the absence of water. Fish die, plants die, aquatic insects die. The river ecosystem is harmed.

Dewatering is one of the largest problems facing rivers and streams in the Wind River watershed. Dewatering affects not only fish populations, but all the plants and animals that rely on healthy, flowing rivers. Dewatering can even pose risks to human health. When streamflows drop low enough, water temperatures rise and dissolved oxygen levels drop. Dewatered conditions allow algae and bacteria to flourish, often making our streams unsafe for drinking or recreation.

Last year, despite above-average precipitation, the Wind River was dewatered for much of the year. Between April 1 and August 26 the Wind River near Riverton flowed at less than 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) 48% of the time and less than 100 cfs 78% of the time. The minimum streamflow needed in this stretch of the Wind River to maintain a healthy fishery and aquatic ecosystem (determined through extensive study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is 252 cfs. The data for this summer don’t look much better.

The minimum streamflow needed to maintain life in the Wind River (as determined by USFWS) in the stretch gauged near Riverton is 252 cfs. The measured streamflow on July 20, 2005 at the Riverton gauging station was only 228 cfs.

Where does the water go?
Miles upstream from Riverton, the Wind River measured 2280 cfs. So where did all of the water go? The USGS webpage tells us that that the Johnstown and Lefthand irrigation ditches removed a combined 51 cfs. But that still leaves 2229 cfs, nearly the flow of the Wind River near Crowheart, unaccounted for. Did 2229 cfs of Wind River water get lost? In a sense, yes.

It turns out that almost all of that water went into the Wyoming Canal, the largest irrigation canal in the Wind River Watershed. The Wyoming Canal, operated by the Midvale Irrigation District, begins at Diversion Dam. In past years, the public and the water management authorities knew how much water was withdrawn from the river into the Wyoming Canal. The USGS ran a gauging station that measured how much water the canal withdrew. That information was posted on a USGS website to provide a full picture of Wind River water use. This year, that information about the water has been lost.

It seems obvious, but the only way to know how a river is doing is to measure the water levels. Unfortunately, the ability to assess the condition of the Wind River has been severely hampered by the removal of the monitoring device from the Wyoming Canal. USGS removed the gauging station at the Wyoming Canal near Lenore this year due to “insufficient funds.” That station, which was installed in 1941, gathered critical streamflow data and water quality data for 64 years.

Today, water is removed from the Wind River and put into the Wyoming Canal without anyone in the Tribal or Federal government knowing how much water is being taken out. The Wind River watershed has enough challenges facing it without the removal of key pieces of data. WRA is working to have the Wyoming Canal gauging station put back on line. WRA is also encouraging USGS to install monitors on the numerous irrigation canals that are not currently being measured.

Wastewater or Wasted Water?
There is another part to this story. At the same time that the Wind River is drying up, Five Mile Creek, which carries irrigation waste water back into the Wind River from the Midvale project flows at about 257 cfs. This drainage has more water in it than the Wind River in Riverton.

Why is this happening? Is more water being taken then needed by farmers and ranchers from the Wind River? Some of the unused water eventually returns to the river, but too far downstream to keep a significant stretch of the Wind River from drying up each summer. The Midvale Irrigation Company invested millions of dollars into the Sand Mesa pipeline to conserve about 26,000 acre feet of water per season. Sadly, the crucial decision of how much water needs to be diverted from the Wind River doesn’t reflect this same spirit of conservation.

What can be done to keep the Wind River a healthy, living river? History shows us that flowing, living streams can be compatible with irrigated agriculture. With efficient water use and careful water management we can keep our streams and river alive and maintain agricultural productivity. Wind River Alliance seeks to educate watershed residents about the extent of dewatering in the Wind River watershed and to help identify and work towards solutions to this serious problem.