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February 18, 2014 8:12 am

EDITORIAL: Irrigation districts prepare to face their challenges

Written by Tom Lawrence

While this surprisingly cold, wet winter has been an unpleasant burden for many of us, there was a silver lining in the clouds that dumped the snow and ice.

It’s been a good winter for the snowpack so far, with the state reporting an above-average level, which means the snow water equivalency is higher than normal. Runoff estimates also are promising, so a good year for farmers, and a reduced likelihood of major fire risk, both seem very possible.

A wave of warm weather that passed through last week, melting much of the snow in lower elevations, raised some concern, but it’s important to know that March and April normally bring more snow and rain than the normally dry winter months. We’re hoping for continued moisture.

Of course, the snowmelt pours massive amounts of water into the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, and local irrigation districts are relied on to distribute that water. They remain crucial to the success of agriculture in our area.

That’s why we applaud the districts’ managers and boards for planning for the future. All face the challenge of maintaining and replacing aging infrastructure, and from what we learned at their annual winter meetings, they are preparing to do just that.

The Heart Mountain Irrigation District may seek a 3 percent rate hike to help pay off its share of the debt incurred in 1993 when the Bureau of Reclamation did a major upgrade on the system. It still owes more than $3.6 million.

Twenty years ago, the four districts — Deaver, Shoshone, Willwood and Heart Mountain — formed a joint powers agreement and decided jointly they would raise rates as needed to pay off the debt. That was a responsible call then, and raising the fees now is another good choice.

Heart Mountain District users each pay $150, plus $24.50 per acre. For that, they get reliable water to produce their crops in this high-desert, arid climate.

Of course, the work is paid for in part by the Wyoming Water Development Commission, a collaborative effort of the state’s four water divisions. Formed in 1975, it is another example of the importance of people pulling together on the same rope.

The Shoshone Irrigation District is also adjusting to changes.

The district has sold power to PacifiCorp at 6.2 cents per 1,000 kilowatt hours. However, a 20-year deal with PacifiCorp ends this year, and manager Bryant Startin said a drop to 4 cents per 1,000 kilowatt hours is possible. That will reduce revenue, but the district is prepared to consider another rate increase.

District members now pay $18.10 per acre plus a $75 landowner fee. It was increased from $17.10 per acre in 2011.

The primary challenge facing the Willwood District is removing tons of silt from the gates at its dam. That builds up over the years, but it has never been dealt with; now it must be tackled.

The districts are also chipping in to help repair an elevator within the Buffalo Bill Dam. Work will be underway soon, and the four districts will contribute, between them, 14.65 percent of the estimated $428,000 cost, or about $62,000.

This is all part of the cost of doing business. Like a cold, wet winter, it’s not the most enjoyable part of the overall picture, but it pays benefits down the road.

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