U.S. Water News Online
CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- To help their downstream neighbors in
Nebraska, water users along the North Platte River in east-central
Wyoming will face more restrictions due to the continued drought, now
stretching into its sixth year.
Because of the needs of irrigators and water consumers in the
Inland Lakes of western Nebraska and due to continued low runoff
forecasts, Wyoming State Engineer Patrick Tyrrell announced that
water use will be limited to holders of "senior" rights older than
Dec. 6, 1904, upstream from Guernsey Reservoir.
The limits will remain in place until May 1.
The restrictions will allow four Nebraska Panhandle lakes -- Big
and Little Lake Alice, Winters Creek Lake and Lake Minatare -- to
accrue water they are entitled to under a U.S. Supreme Court
Irrigators, municipalities and other water users holding rights
later than 1904, known as "junior" rights holders, must rely on
alternate sources of water, Tyrrell said.
Those options could include seeking temporary agreements with
other rights holders or asking the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which
oversees the reservoirs, for temporary supplies.
Under most water laws in the West, the right to use or store water
is based on the date a water right was filed -- the "first in time,
first in right" doctrine.
A "call," which is an administrative restriction that can vary by
water-rights date, is issued when flows are low to protect rights of
On Feb. 10, Tyrrell announced that use of North Platte water
between Pathfinder and Guernsey was limited to those who held rights
of April 20, 1923, or earlier. The new restrictions, with the 1904
cutoff, went into effect April 4.
Since February, users upstream from Pathfinder have been
restricted to the 1904 date -- the year the reservoir was permitted
-- and will continue to be until May 1. Irrigators along the upper
reaches of the river in Colorado are also limited, Tyrrell said.
"On a positive note, the basin above Pathfinder had above-average
precipitation last month, so the runoff forecast in that area has
improved," he said. "Unfortunately, the improvement is not sufficient
enough to avoid continued priority regulation.
"Less than average precipitation has occurred in the basin below
Pathfinder Reservoir, so it remains to be seen whether the runoff
will fill Inland Lakes ownership during the month of April."
In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that the Nebraska lakes
have a priority date of Dec. 6, 1904 -- same as for users above
Pathfinder -- and are allowed to accumulate up to 46,000 acre-feet of
water each water year, which begins in October. Once those lakes
reach that amount, or if May 1 arrives -- the start of peak runoff
season -- any restrictions on junior rights holders usually are
At the end of March, the lakes had about 11,800 acre-feet, Tyrrell
"If they were to fill in April, which appears to be highly
unlikely, then we would relax that call on the lower river back to
the Guernsey date of 1923," he said.
If forecasts for water ownership in the North Platte Project are
less than 1.1 million acre-feet for an upcoming summer, the state
engineer is directed to impose restrictions for irrigators and users
who tap into the federally controlled reservoirs along the river.
As of April 5, the forecast was for 943,300 acre-feet.
In 2002 and 2004, a call also was placed on junior water rights
holders because of a shortage of water for the Inland Lakes, Tyrrell
"This is the fourth year in a row that forecast is less than 1.1
million," Tyrrell said. "What happens is I have to face this
automatic call. I don't have to respond to it automatically, but I
certainly have to take it seriously."
Although runoff forecasts in 2003 would have spurred a call that
year as well, Tyrrell resisted issuing one because a late-season
blizzard added greatly to snowpack.
"We believed that that event would fill the Inland Lakes and
Guernsey Reservoir, and we were right," he said.
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