Ranchers Want Dams to Protect Against Drought, But Could They Worsen Climate Change?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a three-part series.

BIG PINEY, Wyo. – It’s late May in Wyoming. Snow fell the night before, and more is on the way. That’s why it’s good that rancher Chad Espenscheid is behind the wheel. The roads are sloppy and Middle Piney Creek is running high.

All this water is nerve-wracking for ranchers in western Wyoming, who depend on irrigation to feed their livestock.

“It’s been a cold, long winter,” Espenscheid said. “The cows and calves are really needing some sunshine about now. We got quite a bit of sickness going on around the (Green River) Valley.”

Rancher and Water Engineer Chad Espenscheid stands at an overlook of his property on Middle Piney Creek as a snowstorm brews behind him. (Melodie Edwards/Wyoming Public Radio)

That sickness could mean he’ll lose a lot of newborn calves.

Many aspects of ranching are stressful, and one of the big ones is water. That’s why Espenscheid is pleased the state is fixing the Middle Piney Dam, which has fallen into disrepair where the creek flows into the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River.

“It would give Middle Piney Creek a little more of a steady flow instead of it all coming out in one shot and everybody really having to hustle around and capture it all at one time,” he said, adding that he could use that water to irrigate his hayfields to feed those calves.

Not only is Espenscheid a rancher, he’s also a water engineer who participates in an experimental conservation program that pays ranchers to only irrigate when they have to. So in late summer, after he’s hayed his fields, he turns off the spigot. But fixing Middle Piney Dam will store a modest 4,200 acre-feet of water that would have wound up in the Colorado, Espenscheid said.

He’s not sure what to think about how that will affect Lower Basin states that also rely on the Colorado River.

“I don’t know, I’m just Wyoming through and true, so I’m kind of worried about Wyoming, I guess, to be honest,” Espenscheid said. “So I think we’ve got to take care of our own sustainability and make sure we have opportunities for growth.”

It’s not just the Middle Piney Reservoir that’s being expanded, though. Jason Mead with Wyoming’s Water Development Office adds up the acre-feet of water storage the state wants to build on the Green River watershed.

“Four thousand for Middle Piney, 10,000 for West Fork; that’s 14,000,” Mead said. “Another 8 (thousand) at New Fork, so that’s 22,000, another 9 (thousand) between Meek’s Cabin, that’s 31,000.”

All told, he figures Wyoming could add about 50,000 acre-feet with five new or expanded reservoirs, including Big Sandy, West Fork, Meek’s Cabin and Stateline. And then there are the 80,000 acre-feet that the Fontanelle Reservoir on the Green River eventually could add, once drought lowers the water level enough to finish the foundation.

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At 130,000 acre-feet total, that would be enough water to supply a city of a million people – but Wyoming’s entire population is half that.

“Every one of these projects we’re talking about,” Mead said, “really are for irrigation shortages and trying to handle the drought situations that everybody has faced over the years and trying to take water when we have good years and carry it over into years that are drier,” Mead said.

And those drier years are expected to worsen. Long-range forecasts predict heavy snowpacks will melt and flood earlier and earlier, leaving ranchers with less water in the summer.

“If we can’t keep those businesses afloat, eventually they’re going to have to sell,” Mead said. “Do they get developed in the future? We don’t know, but if we keep them in ranching, we know we’re going to maintain that open space.”

Although more dams could help ranchers survive coming droughts, some scientists say building more dams, particularly those meant to control flooding, might actually worsen climate change.

“They want the water drained out so in the event of a flood they have storage capacity,” University of Wyoming soil scientist Jay Norton said. “That can cause very low flows downstream that dry up those floodplain wetlands,” which store huge amounts of organic carbon.

“There’s estimates that if we could raise soil organic carbon by about 0.4 percent per year, that we would completely offset human-derived emissions of greenhouse gases,” Norton said.

Think of all the plants along streams in the otherwise arid Mountain West. Wetlands on undammed waterways can cover as little as 2% of the landscape but hold 15% to 30% of the carbon. But if reservoirs hold all the water, those riparian areas will dry up and lose the ability to hold carbon.

According to Norton, however, more dams in the Upper Basin – if managed correctly – could create more wetlands and store more carbon.

“Conceivably, it could have a positive effect on downstream wetlands, if water tables are maintained relatively high,” he said. “Irrigation itself expands wetlands.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the only effect dams have on climate. One study shows that decomposing organic matter behind dams as water levels drop can produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s even more potent than carbon dioxide.

But Espenscheid, the rancher and water engineer, said the positives of building dams outweigh the negatives.

“Most ranchers, they’re ranchers because they love their ranch and they love the outdoors and they love the wildlife and everything about it,” he said. “So if you can find a win-win solution, then everybody’s happy.”

The question is: With all the Upper Basin states investing in more dams, what will the cumulative effect be?

This story is part of “The Final Straw,” a series produced by the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, KUER and Wyoming Public Radio.

Water just right: HOAs strive for green fields and conservation

PHOENIX – Jose Alvarez, a supervisor at R. H. Dupper Landscaping, stood up from changing a sprinkler nozzle on a large grassy field at a homeowner’s association in Chandler, Arizona. He surveyed the turf, a patchwork of green and brown.

“It looks terrible,” he said. “The sprinklers, they don’t have enough pressure, and they spray, like, a little bit.” He noted the rings, like miniature crop circles, created by uneven watering.

Josh Dupper said they get a lot of business fixing this kind of problem.

“Their water bills were through the roof because they were essentially flood irrigating,” Dupper said. “It still looked bad, even while they were spending a ton on water. And their landscaper just did not know what to do.”

Revamping the irrigation plan is the first step. Then, Dupper’s company uses historical evapotranspiration data and homemade software to determine how much a field gets watered. He has crews come to each site monthly to take readings and adjust settings based on the forecast.

Josh Dupper of R.H. Dupper Landscaping in the Phoenix area says his industry lags behind in the technical knowledge needed to finely-tune water use to weather conditions. (Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

It’s a Goldilocks approach to landscape watering: not too much, not too little, but just right.

Lawns and landscaping are polarizing symbols when we talk about water use in the desert. Some communities are paying homeowners to rip out their grass. Others, like this Chandler HOA, are trying to save water on the green fields that residents adore.

In nearby Gilbert, Arizona, Jeff Lee is trying to nudge HOAs to look at watering that way.

Lee, a water conservation specialist for the town, traces an HOA’s landscape area using Google Earth Pro, converts that to square footage, then uploads the HOA’s monthly water usage to a vendor. The vendor, Waterfluence, analyzes the data using that month’s actual weather — not the historical weather conditions Dupper uses. HOAs and landscapers can see the results on a web portal.

“We can actually show them the cost comparisons,” Lee said. “How many dollars they should’ve spent on water and how many dollars they actually did spend on water based on what the landscaper was doing.”

Lee doesn’t want HOAs to underwater their large fields, trees and shrubs. The point is to let them know if they’re hitting that Goldilocks volume of water that maintains lush grass with low levels of water waste.

This homeowners' association in Chandler, Arizona overspent on water and still had patchy results. (Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

The Gilbert program is free for HOAs and voluntary. Lee said about 30 percent of the town’s 205 HOAs are enrolled. He estimated Gilbert saves over 200 million gallons of water a year through the program.

If you’re using too much water, though, getting on track can be expensive.

Kayte Comes is a board member of her HOA in Peoria, northwest of Phoenix. When her community, the Village at Vistancia, chose a new landscaper, they hired a firm that prioritizes conservation. Upon that firm’s recommendation, the board decided to replace parts of their irrigation system.

“Not every HOA, unfortunately, has the funds to do that,” she said. “But it’s gonna save your HOA in the long run.”

She added that a lot of businesses are willing to work with customers to help them afford upfront costs.

Some HOAs and landscapers are turning to so-called “smart controllers,” devices that adjust watering levels automatically. But Lee, Dupper and others say the smart controller is only as smart as the landscaper who programs it. Landscapers in Arizona can get a license if they pass two exams and have four years of experience.

“Part of the problem with the industry is it’s not advancing as fast as it should in the technical aspect,” Dupper said. “Because there’s no accountability or requirement to have it.”

The state of Arizona puts a water limit on HOAs in so-called “active management areas” in the middle of the state. Even then, it only applies to those with ten acres of landscaping or more. But with an increasing awareness of tech tools and water scarcity, more HOAs may be looking for that Goldilocks volume.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.