The Pioneer Canal-Lake Hattie Irrigation District and landowners surrounding Lake Hattie plan to begin formal mediation in early July to determine a high-water mark for the reservoir that’s agreeable to both parties.
Brand Jensen, the surrounding landowners’ attorney, said Tuesday that for mediation to be successful, “the outcome would have to include the payment of damages.”
“That would have to be a good faith discussion at this point,” he said. If the district agrees to pay damages, the surrounding land-owners are expected to allow some flooding of their property, though not nearly to the extent that’s caused serious property damage in recent years.
U.S. District Court Judge Kelly Rankin, who will oversee the mediation, said that all parties should, and are required to, go into a mediation with an open mind, but added that he also understood Jensen’s point about damages being a necessary topic of consideration.
Despite the irrigation district’s history of raising Hattie’s water level during spring runoff in a way that floods surrounding properties, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in December that the irrigation district has no right to have the reservoir expand beyond its formal geographic boundary as drawn on a map of the reservoir that was approved by the Department of Interior more than a century ago.
Because of erosion since then, keeping Lake Hattie within that perimeter means PCLHID would not be allowed to fill to its capacity 94,960 acre-feet.
While formal mediation has been scheduled, parties have had discussions — without their attorneys present — on the possibility of reaching a settlement out-of-court.
A couple landowners had a PCLHID board member out to the lake and their properties early last week to discuss negotiations.
After the 10th Circuit ruled in favor of the landowners, the irrigation district has, in recent weeks, been slowly lowering Hattie’s water level.
Greg Weisz, who represents the irrigation district, said Tuesday there’s currently 70 cubic feet per second being drained.
“I don’t think the lake level is all that much lower since the last time we spoke,” Jensen said in response, expressing concern over the level of the lake.
Meanwhile, PCLHID is also seeking help from the Wyoming Water Development Commission to study some solutions to allow Hattie to be filled to its full capacity without damaging surrounding private infrastructure.
“The landowners that sued us are basically trying to keep us from storing water on their property and so we’re basically asking you guys if you can study the situation, come up with some suggestions as to a sea wall or rip rap or a berm or something we haven’t thought of,” said Jay Talbott, a representative of PCLHID, during WWDC’s May meeting.
PCLHID chairman Cody Humphrey put the application into the Wyoming Water Development Office to “evaluate projects and explore alternatives for reservoir operation that might ‘mitigate private landowner claims and restore full operational capacity to the reservoir,’” according to workshop documents from the commission’s May meeting.
The PCLHID’s application shows the purpose of the request is also to “explore a means of resolving the current conflict with the private landowners and Irrigation District.”
“We’re hoping that there’s a way that by saying we have an application in with you and that you are willing to discuss and look at it, that gives us a leg up in mediation with these people,” Talbott told the WWDC.
The WWDC chose to postpone a decision on doing the study until November in order to see how the court proceedings between the PCLHID and the cabin owners turn out.
“We would like to have the courts come to a final determination of what it’s really going to be, so there’s still some court proceedings going on that may change the result,” WWDC Director Brandon Gebhart said at the May meeting.
In addition to the court’s continued work on mediation, the irrigation district has also asked for clarity on how to reconcile the 10th Circuit’s ruling with other aspects that have historically defined the reservoir’s right-of-way.
A property owner at Lake Hattie, Dale Carlson, said the proposition of the PCLHID to the WWDC would not help his property.
“Sea wall, rip rap, it wouldn’t do us any good,” Carlson said. He said it could help other property owners with erosion, owners who live on a cliff, but Carlson’s access to the lake is by a gradual slope down into the water.
“That would do us absolutely no good at all, because the level of the water in our house would be the level of water in the lake, so a sea wall would do us absolutely no good,” Carlson said. He also expressed concern that lake access for the people of Laramie would be limited by a sea wall.
Carlson’s home is one of the ones that was flooded in summer 2019.
“It’s ridiculous the amount of time and money we’ve wasted, we haven’t been able to do improvement on our house because we didn’t know whether we would have a house, and they went ahead and flooded it anyway, and there’s a lot of damage inside. And it’s unusable right now,” Carlson said.
While the lake is no longer in Carlson’s home, he said it is still above the court-ordered level.
The landowners hired a surveyor to determine what the elevation of the lake is when filled to the boundary on the map, which was determined to be 7,258 ft. This is 20 feet below the spillway elevation. The district’s water rights are restricted when it can only fill the lake to the court-ordered level.
Josh DeBerard, a hydrographer for the State Engineer’s Officer, said the elevation of the lake was 7,271.68 ft on May 28 — that equates to 76,460 acre-ft. of water.
On May 5, the lake had 77,340 acre-feet of water.
“That shows they’re not taking any more in, and there won’t be a ton to take in,” DeBerard told the Boomerang last week. He said the decrease in acre-feet is due to evaporation and what the district is letting out.
Weisz said Tuesday that his client does not expect to be able to put any more water in the lake this year because of other water users with higher priority who will fill their reservoirs first.
During the county’s spring runoff, some water from the Laramie River is often diverted to Lake Hattie to help avoid flooding downstream.
Local officials have worried that the court-ordered limitation on Hattie will exacerbate the flood risk to the city of Laramie.
However, DeBerard said he doesn’t expect flooding this year off the Big Laramie River because the snowpack is only half the average.
As of May 28, the snowpack on the Big Laramie River was 58% of the 30-year median. The Little Laramie was 128% of the 30-year median.
“Everybody was concerned about a flood happening this year, but I don’t see that happening off the Big Laramie River,” DeBerard said.
As far as damages, Carlson said the WWDC has reached out to the property owners, offering up to $1,000 for each lot that has experienced damages from flooding and erosion. Carlson said $1,000 would not be enough to cover the costs of repair.
Cody Humphrey declined to comment on the WWDC study application and any negotiations going on between the two parties, except to say that they are indeed trying to reach a deal.
Carlson said the meeting early last week at the properties seemed promising.
“My client reports that the discussions were cordial, were frank, there was trading of information back and forth, and it’s my understanding that the meeting was positive enough that everybody felt they should get together again,” Weisz said. He also said, to his knowledge, that the parties were planning to meet again this weekend.