UW, Laramie at odds over water bill
LARAMIE — The City of Laramie and University of Wyoming leadership are currently engaged in a conflict regarding a piece of legislation introduced to the Wyoming House of Representatives earlier this month.
On March 10, House Bill 198 was passed in a six to one vote by the Appropriations Committee. The bill has picked up momentum; on Tuesday, it was approved in its third and final reading in the House and was sent to the Senate for introduction.
Now, it has passed its second reading, and will go onto a third reading before potentially being passed to the Senate. None of the bill sponsors are from the City of Laramie or Albany County.
House Bill 198 would grant UW special treatment to function independently from an established water system. The City of Laramie argues that the bill would allow UW unprecedented power over water supplies in the area, which will adversely affect the citizens of Laramie.
House Bill 198 grants UW the right to develop, drill, construct, operate, maintain and use any water line, system, well or works on property owned by the university. It also states that no city or county can restrict or prohibit the university from developing, drilling, constructing, operating, maintaining or using any water system independent of the city’s or county’s water system.
“This bill would allow the university to create a shadow water system, and put a second water system beyond the reach of the citizens,” said Bob Southard, attorney for the City of Laramie.
During the Laramie City Council meeting on March 16, Southard explained that if the council makes a poor decision with the water system, citizens can make their voice heard and vote their council members out. If UW is granted this power and they do something to negatively affect the community, then the people of Laramie can do nothing about it.
During the City Council session, Council member Erin O’Doherty (Ward 3) noted that this bill would not just affect the water systems of Laramie. She pointed out that UW owns property throughout the entire state and this piece of legislation would apply to any property owned by the university. This bill would allow UW the power to build their own water systems in any of the communities in which they own property.
During the council meeting, Laramie Mayor Paul Weaver noted that it was strange that the bill went to the House Appropriations Committee when it did not require appropriated money from the state. He suggested that it may have been more appropriately assigned to the Agriculture, State, and Public Lands & Water Resources committee.
The UW water supply historically comes from the City of Laramie municipal water system for all potable (drinkable) water, and much of the non-potable (irrigation) needs. Until 2006, UW received free irrigation water from Laramie to irrigate the Jacoby Golf Course. The golf course was constructed with a Federal Land and Water Conservation grant that stipulated it must remain open to the public.
This community usage was justification to the city to provide free water. However, the “free water” policy was controversial among residents who felt they were subsidizing community and collegiate golfing.
After working with rate consultants, the Laramie City Council instituted charges for water in 2007. To ensure public access would continue, the city discounted the rate by 75 percent. City officials maintain that the rate for the university has not risen in five years. UW currently pays a rate of $2.22, which is a 71-percent discount from the current rate of $7.76. UW pays an average yearly cost of $133,200 to irrigate the golf course, plus a $5,523 meter fee.
In 2020, the UW Board of Trustees appropriated $290,000 to drill two new irrigation wells, which the university refers to as the “Pilot Hill Well Project.” In December 2020, UW applied for and was granted permits from the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office (WYSEO) not only for irrigation of the Jacoby Golf Course, but for the entire UW campus.
In the summer of 2020, the City of Laramie passed original ordinance No. 2015, adding Section 13.04.360 to Laramie Municipal Code, which prevents the development and use of non-municipal water within Laramie’s corporate limits. Already-existing wells were grandfathered into the ordinance.
At the time, the city’s water attorney, Korry Lewis, laid out a variety of reasons for 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.
During the July 21, 2020 reading of the ordinance, former Wyoming Senate president Phil Nicholas expressed outrage at the ordinance, saying that it targeted UW. In doing so, he warned that the city could face retribution from the Legislature.
“When you undertake to extend your extraterritorial authority, now towards a government entity, you’re taking on the citizens of Wyoming and it’s a fight I don’t think you’re going to win,” Nicholas said.
Phil Nicholas’ brother, Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Laramie County, currently chairs the House Appropriations Committee, which is the committee that initially passed House Bill 198 on the floor.
During the March 10 House Appropriations Committee’s hearing of House Bill 198, registered lobbyist Patrick Crank spoke on behalf of UW.
“On Aug. 4, 2020, the City of Laramie passed an ordinance that says that the university cannot import any water into Laramie city limits. We believe that far exceeds the statutory authority that the legislature has granted a municipality like the City of Laramie,” Crank said.
Crank continued, saying that he believed that UW is a “super state agency” that derives its power from the Wyoming Constitution. Therefore, he argued, the university has greater authority and dominion over their affairs than other state agencies, and has far superior authority than cities, towns, and counties.
“In the state of Wyoming, all water belongs to the state and is under the authority of the state engineer,” Crank said.
He added that the Legislature has never granted a city the authority to prohibit the importation of water within their city limits.
“The University has its own water well and has been told by the city that they cannot use it. It’s unfortunate that legislation is required, but ultimately this saves time and money from litigation taking place,” said Rep. Landon Brown, R-Laramie County, in an email. He is one of the sponsors of the bill.
Additionally, Crank said that the city has repeatedly refused to offer solutions to UW or work in collaboration with the institution.
This was met with outrage from city council and city employees, who maintain that they have had repeated meetings with the university and offered multiple collaborative solutions. In fact, they said that UW has not responded to any suggestions or requests from the city until the surprise introduction of House Bill 198.
At the time of publication of this article, Crank did not return requests for further comment on the issue; nor did other sponsors of the bill.
Those sponsors are: Reps. Bob Nicholas, R-Laramie County, Landon Brown, R-Laramie County, Donald Burkhart, R-Carbon County, Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan County, and Tom Walters, R-Natrona County, as well as Senators Drew Perkins, R-Natrona County, and Jeff Wasserburger, R-Campbell, Converse Counties.
“In the last five years, there have been meetings with the city and UW. It’s heated up on our side as we’ve proposed solutions on the issue to the university. We have never received a statement saying, ‘Yes, we want to work with you.’ We’re not even sure what the university wants because they have never communicated with us in writing,” City Attorney Southard said.
“To create a municipal water system is a very expensive process,” Council member O’Doherty said during the March 16 council meeting, adding that it will likely cost the university a tremendous amount of money.
Several city representatives seemed baffled by the end goal of the university investing tremendous resources in a new water system, especially during a time of widespread budget crises across municipalities and the university.
“We have concerns with interference, water quality, ability to grow the city, and rate fares,” said Darren Parkin, natural resource manager for the city of Laramie. He noted that UW is currently the water system’s largest customer.
He explained that the city’s water system was built in order to service a large institution like UW, and it cannot be shrunk if the university goes offline for their own adjacent irrigation water system.
Therefore, Laramie citizens left on the water system would likely have to pick up the financial slack to maintain the system operations.
This would mean a substantial increase in water rates across the city. Beyond the increase in rate fares, if irrigation discontinues, stagnant water would likely become a major issue that would require the implementation of an ongoing flushing program, which would ultimately cost the city more money.
According to Laramie city officials, new UW wells pose an issue to the city’s existing water supply. The city is currently in the process of rehabilitating an existing older well to support growth in north Laramie. UW drilled one of its new irrigation wells less than 100 feet from the city’s well, thus greatly increasing the chance of interference of the wells.
Further, the city notes that the Casper Aquifer is Laramie’s main insurance policy against prolonged drought. With the university planning to take water from the same aquifer at the same location, the city’s drought resiliency could be drastically reduced. There is also a concern about degradation of water quality within the aquifer.