The former president of the Wyoming Senate advised the Laramie City Council that it’s treading in dangerous waters by trying to regulate the use of non-municipal water within city limits during the council’s regular meeting Tuesday.
The city council advanced the second of three readings on an ordinance requiring Laramie residents and all other entities to use water from the city’s municipal utility when within its borders. Councilman Charles McKinney and Councilwoman Jessica Stalder voted “no” on the second reading.
Under the ordinance, using non-municipal water within Laramie would require permission of the city council.
Korry Lewis, an attorney working with the city on water law matters, said there are a variety of important reasons for moving forward with the ordinance, including protecting the city from uncontrolled discharge into its water system, protecting the water supply for future growth and assuring the fiscal integrity of the city’s utility.
But it’s not that simple, according to Laramie attorney Phil Nicholas. Nicholas, once the most powerful man in the state Legislature as the Senate president, said it was obvious the city council’s action was directed at the University of Wyoming.
Nicholas advised the council that the proposed ordinance would put the city at odds with the entire state. Laramie, he argued, is one of the greatest beneficiaries of state funding while having a more complex relationship with lawmakers from more rural parts of the state. By targeted UW, the city of Laramie could face retribution from the Legislature, Nicholas said.
“We know this is directed toward the University of Wyoming and projects the Legislature cares greatly about,” Nicholas said. “When you undertake to extend your extraterritorial authority, now towards a governmental entity, you’re taking on the citizens of Wyoming and it’s a fight I don’t think you’re going to win.”
The city butted heads with the University of Wyoming in 2019 over UW’s drilling project in eastern Laramie to irrigate Jacoby Golf Course. A cease-and-desist letter sent to UW administration in August from the city was the culmination of a back-and-forth between the city and university as to whether the drilling was authorized, with the city expressing concern the Casper Aquifer could be contaminated.
But Lewis said Nicholas’ assertion that the regulation was aimed at UW was inaccurate.
“This is a proposed ordinance in the best interest of the city,” Lewis said. “There are several large users within the city of the Laramie. This has been discussed many times over the years and has just come to fruition now.”
Lewis said the city had made multiple attempts to reach out to UW to discuss landscape watering, for which it receives a 75% discount, but that it was up to the university to make the next move.
“We’ve made that offer multiple times, so this is the city protecting its water utility and offering to work with the university to work toward something mutually beneficial for both parties,” Lewis said.
Lewis characterized Nicholas’s advice as threats to the city, saying it was “absolutely unnecessary” to put the council in that position.
Nicholas fired back, saying he “wasn’t born yesterday” and that the assertion the ordinance wasn’t directed at UW was “a farce.” He also asserted that Lewis was an out-of-state hire for the city.
“When I hear an attorney from out of state tell me something I know is wrong I feel pretty offended,” Nicholas said. “You should all know this wasn’t an initiative by UW — it was the citizens of Wyoming who determined they wanted to ensure that there would be ample untreated water as free as it could be, just like we do with tution, to make sure there would be green grass forever.”
Lewis shot back that she, a resident of Cheyenne, was likewise offended by Nicholas’ comments, referring to him as “senator.”
“I do not appreciate the personal attack,” she said.
In any case, Lewis said the city of Laramie would be the loser should it not move forward with the ordinance.
“I would like to ask Sen. Nicholas how harming the city of Laramie benefits the university, because either way they’re going to be harmed financially,” Lewis said.
“If they’re going to have their own well and have their own waterworks system in the city, then they’re harming us financially. If you go and lobby the Legislature to take away some of our funding, they’re going to harm us financially. One of those is permanent, one depends on the political climate.”
The proposed ordinance is scheduled to have its third and final reading during the Aug. 4 city council meeting.