The Saratoga Sun -

Mead and Water: Governor seeks input from local communities on water issues

 

More than 50 people gathered at the Platte Valley Community Center last week to discuss pressures on the quantity and quality of water supply in the Platte Valley.

The Nov. 12 listening session, co-hosted by the Saratoga/Rawlins/Encampment Conservation District (SERCD), was called by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who is seeking opinions from individuals and groups across the state on how Wyoming can better manage, develop, protect, conserve and restore its water. The Governor's Office began hosting listening sessions around Wyoming as the first step in gathering information for developing a comprehensive statewide water strategy.

A press release from Mead's office said "The creation of a water strategy was identified as one of the most important initiatives of Mead's Energy Strategy, entitled 'Leading the Charge: Wyoming's Action Plan for Energy, Environment and Economy'."

According to Mead, Wyoming's leadership role requires the state to continue to set the standard, and, in the absence of a federal energy plan, the state needs a strategy to address energy, the environment and the economy.

Nephi Cole, policy advisor for Mead's Office, was the meeting's primary speaker and presenter, and received comments from community members primarily concerned about water from an agricultural, conservationist or restorationist standpoint. Some of the expressed concerns were over limitations on water development in the Valley, the over-appropriated nature of the North Platte River through the Valley and whether or not the federal government is diverting more water from the North Platte River here than is legally allowed.

Jeb Steward, former Wyoming House District No. 47 Representative and board member of the Upper North Platte Valley Water Users Association, was impressed with the large community turnout. He said the number of people attending proved just how important water is to the entire community.

"For me the biggest takeaway of the whole afternoon was the level of participation from local community members," Steward said. "To me, that speaks volumes on the importance of this water policy issue, and it shows how it touches everyone's lives in one way or another."

Cole said the Saratoga meeting was the second in a series of nine being held across Wyoming, with the first one being in Pinedale. The meetings are planned to gain feedback and opinions from people in various Wyoming communities, and who are from different backgrounds.

"The purpose is to try and find the scope of those issues and concerns that are most important to the people of Wyoming, with relation to water as we move forward developing a comprehensive water strategy for the state," Cole said. "For me the most important issue is getting local involvement, and getting local people to believe they can come to a consensus and make a difference wherever they're at. I think that's a key of this process, and to me that's the most important thing, giving folks who are on the ground a voice in the discussion."

During the meeting, those in attendance broke into three groups to discuss which water-related issues they found to be the most important. Three facilitators typed notes for the groups, and all three sets of notes were shown on a projector screen afterward.

"All the key areas had valid points, whether they dealt with development, management, protection and restoration, and all those areas had key points that people were bringing up," Cole said. "The most important part of this meeting truly has been the number of people that are coming out to the meetings. It's not entirely a surprise, but I'd say the most important thing we get from every one of these meetings is that people care about all these issues."

After hearing much feedback on several different topics, Cole said it was hard to pinpoint exactly which water-related issue brought up was of the most importance.

"It's tough to pin me down on what i find most important, because it's all important," he said. "With every one we talked about, there are critical areas within each one to me that I've personally worked with and personally care about. For the last seven years, I've had a unique opportunity to work with local landowner groups in local communities, and there are many issues everywhere with a relation to water. The most important thing to me and most important thing I've learned is that the best decisions are made as close to the problem as possible."

Cole said he plans to use the same group break-up format for discussions in future listening sessions. He said the voice of the public is what matters most at the meetings.

"The audience will determine what they want to talk about within those broad areas," Cole said. "Each group kind of had a different driving focus, and we think that's going to be typical throughout the state. I think the issues that are most important are going to be different depending on who's sitting around those tables and who you're talking to. The reason we did this the way we did is because we feel like this is going to give us the most variety and widest scope of thought, opinion and interest as we move forward."

When all of this year's meetings are wrapped up, Cole said the comments from each one will be organized into a draft document, which will identify common concerns and interests around the state. The format would be helpful in gaining further public input, and should be ready by early next year.

"We're looking forward to being able to compile these and cook everything down into what are the key actionable initiatives that we can try and employ into the state," Cole said. "We don't know yet, but i think in about nine meetings we'll start to have a good idea. When we get done I think that will give us the opportunity to embrace a few key opportunities as a state, where we can really make a difference."

Steward said he hopes this year's listening sessions can provide a meaningful forum for Wyoming citizens, and translate into a beneficial statewide water strategy.

"This is a great way to inform citizens on water, and for them to provide some meaningful comments," he said. "It is a great exercise the governor is going through, and we appreciate him opening it up to some input. Hopefully they can incorporate these comments into some meaningful water policy going forward."

The remaining listening sessions take place throughout this month and December, and will occur in Jackson, Gillette, Cheyenne, Casper, Lovell and Torrington. Cole added he was surprised with the large turnout for a town of Saratoga's size.

"I would have thought this would be one of our smaller meetings, based on our location, and I would anticipate we'll have a crowd this big or bigger at most of our other meetings," he said. "We'll focus on anything water-related, and we'll have the same agenda at every meeting."

A second round of public meetings will be held in the spring next year, where a water strategy will begin to emerge even further. More information on Leading the Change: Wyoming's Action Plan for Energy, Environment and Economy can be found at http://www.energy.wyo.gov.

 

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