Wyoming tribes get support to keep a river wet

  • Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming

    Diane Sylvain
  • Irrigation district dumped cars along Wind River in Wyo.


As the Wind River slices through the 2.2 million-acre Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, home to some 8,000 Shoshone and Arapaho tribal members, it becomes the "most abused water system in the Western United States," says Tom Dougherty of the National Wildlife Federation.

But Indians aren't the abusers. Dougherty says the culprits are non-Indian farmers with water rights who blatantly violate the law.

The latest episode started last summer, when the LeClair Irrigation District dumped old car bodies, engine blocks, dishwashers and other trash into the river bed. The district, which serves farmers with Wind River water rights, wanted to block the river, then divert water to its irrigation ditches. It did not bother to obtain a federal 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps ordered the district to remove the trash and a huge dike that had been formed to take the river out of an old channel. But when the district stalled last fall, the National Wildlife Federation filed a 60-day notice of its intent to sue.

The district has subsequently removed some of the trash, but much of the river remains channelized and the fill material is still there. Now the federation is poised to carry out its lawsuit.

Norm Young, an attorney for the irrigation district, says the environmental group is making a big stink about a relatively minor problem. "I think the National Wildlife Federation has blown it all out of proportion," he says.

Dick Baldes, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a member of the Shoshone Tribe, sees it differently. "They (the irrigators) have been exceeding their water rights and raping the river for all these years and getting away with it," he says. "I'm glad to see the National Wildlife Federation involved because they can't get the clamps put on them like we can as a federal agency."

Baldes says the dumping of car bodies and other violations of the Clean Water Act have been going on for years. In 1983, for instance, the Corps issued the LeClair district an "after-the-fact" permit for digging and filling the river. Last year, Baldes says, the whole river was diverted into irrigation canals, even though the tribes also have rights to the river.

"What kind of people dry up an entire river?" asks Baldes. "There's obviously a total lack of concern for other uses of the river."

The hitch is that although the tribes have been awarded a senior water right of 500,000 acre-feet, they haven't been allowed to use the water for anything other than agriculture (HCN, 8/27/90). The tribe would like to leave some of the water in the river to support a trout fishery and attract tourism to the impoverished reservation. Over the past several years, Baldes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have planted nearly 500,000 brown and rainbow trout in the river, at a cost of $250,000.

"When we had water in the river the fish were starting to come back," says Dave Skates, a fisheries biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "There's no doubt it could be an outstanding fishery."

Even when there is water in the river, irrigators damage the fishery by periodically flushing tons of silt down the river from their diversion structures, Baldes and Skates say. The fine sediment chokes fish and smothers spawning beds. "All of these abuses just have a cumulative effect," says Baldes.

Distrust between the irrigators and the federal scientists is high. In the ongoing controversy over the dumped cars, the LeClair people did not ask for the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when they attempted to stabilize the river bank.

"We could have helped them do it right," says Baldes. "Look at how much money it's cost to do it wrong, then do it over to get it right."

Instead, LeClair filed criminal trespass charges against Baldes after he brought the dumping problem to the attention of the Corps and the National Wildlife Federation.

Meanwhile, the federation is awaiting a formal reply from the Corps over the LeClair cleanup. Until that is in hand, the conservation group will keep its threat of a lawsuit alive, says Susan Horner, an attorney with the group. Even then, she says, "I expect the Corps is going to be more satisfied with what is done than we will be."

The writer freelances out of Lander, Wyoming.

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