House Bill 261 in the Works to Prevent Future Dam Overflows

Wyoming lawmakers will soon consider legislation allowing more sediment to be released into rivers from irrigation dams.

A Powell area lawmaker said it will help prevent future accidents like the Willwood Dam spill last fall.

Trout Unlimited and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition members think it’s a bad idea.

Witnesses said the Shoshone River looked like a chocolate milk shake in late October, after the Willwood Irrigation District manager released the water from the reservoir above, for dam repairs. Tons of sediment and debris that had been accumulating behind the dam ended up in the river below.

Wyoming Game and Fish fisheries biologist Sam Hochhalter said later surveys revealed from ten to twenty percent of the fish population below the dam was killed.

Shoshone River Homeowner Kirk Bollinger said in November, “I was sad. I can’t sleep at night. You know I moved here because of this river, and now I think I have to move.”

Bollinger said the spill may have hurt his property value.

Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality issued a notice of violation to the Willwood Irrigation District. A Cody fishing outfitter called the DEQ.

The owner of North Fork Anglers, Tim Wade said, “Somebody has to take responsibility, and then we need to take the next step to make sure it doesn’t happen anymore.”

In early December, the Irrigation district manager refilled the reservoir. After a large public meeting in Powell, irrigators, state, and federal representatives started working to find a long term solution.

But, Powell area state representative David Northrup says DEQ slowed down their efforts, so he introduced HB 261, which would require the DEQ to lower its sediment release standards.

Northrup said, “In talking with the director of DEQ, I told him I wanted to run a bill that would hold their feet to the fire, had drawn up another draft and he came back with this draft language.”

The Bill states, in part: “DEQ shall establish, through its water quality standards rule making process, alternative allowable turbidity and suspended solids standards.”

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition released a comment critical of the bill:
“HB 261 does nothing to address the cause of sediment pollution and fish kills downstream.”

Trout Unlimited member David Sweet agrees.

Sweet pointed out, “Irrigation water is used on the fields and returned very dirty, very murky, into our river systems. There are man-made causes along the river corridor where stream banks are eroded.”

At this point, there seems to be little agreement on what the long term solution will be. HB 261 affects irrigation dams all over the state of Wyoming.