A Brief History of Greybull Valley Irrigation District
The Greybull River originates on the eastern slope of the Absaroka Range at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. The river flows approximately 80 miles in a northeasterly direction to its confluence with the Bighorn River at Greybull, Wyoming, at an elevation of 3,800 feet. The river drains an area of about 1,150 square miles. The upper portion of the drainage basin is steep and moderately wooded; the middle and lower basins are rolling plains where sagebrush is the predominate vegetation. The average fall of the river in the upper basin is about 120 feet per mile which diminishes to about 40 feet per mile as the river emerges from the foothills of the Absaroka Range.
Ranching, Irrigation and Immigrants
The late 1870’s and the 1880’s brought cattle and sheep operations to the Bighorn Basin, starting with John Chapman’s Two Dot Ranch on a tributary of the Clark’s Fork River and Judge William Alexander Carter’s ranch on the Stinking Water River, later renamed the Shoshone River. Carter Creek and Carter Mountain are named for this rancher and the McCullough Peaks northeast of Cody are named for his foreman, Peter McCullough.
Ranching in the Upper Greybull Valley started with the founding of the Pitchfork Ranch west of present day Meeteetse by Otto Franc in 1879. (It was on the Pitchfork Ranch 102 years later that a dog brought in a black-footed ferret, a species that had been considered extinct for two years.) The majority of the lands within the Greybull Valley Irrigation District are located within the Big Horn Basin. Because of its remoteness, the basin was one of the last regions in the United States and Wyoming to be settled. In 1894, the Carey Desert Land Act was enacted which provided 1,000,000 acres of land to be donated to each of the arid states. That land could only become productive by irrigation.
Because irrigation was the key to the development of the Big Horn Basin, three independent groups played a major role in that development: 1.) William F. Cody and his Shoshone Land and Irrigation Company. 2.) The Mormons, under the leadership of Abraham Woodruff, and 3.) Solon Wiley’s Big Horn Basin Development Company, who built the Bench Canal to supply water to current day Emblem Bench area. During the 1890’s, a number of German settlers moved into the area to acquire low cost lands for irrigation that were available under provisions of the Carey Act.
Greybull Valley Irrigation District Established
Water shortages and the desire to develop additional irrigated lands led to the formation of Greybull Valley Irrigation District (GVID) which was duly organized and created under the laws of the State of Wyoming in July, 1920. The District was created to construct, operate, maintain, and finance a storage reservoir, its supply canal and the diversion works to take water from the Greybull River and other appurtenances of the reservoir.
Upper Sunshine Reservoir
In 1922 the District prepared bids to construct Upper Sunshine Reservoir. The original cost estimate was $845,000. No contract was entered into due to the fact it was not possible to sell the bonds necessary to properly finance the construction. Continued opposition to this method of financing forced the District to abandon the proposal in 1927. GVID first applied for a Loan and Grant to the Federal Emergency Administration of Public works in September 1933, and in February 1935 a total of $1,108,000 was authorized to build the first GVID storage reservoir. The grant/loan ratio was set at 70/30.
Construction of Upper Sunshine Reservoir was completed in 1938. The reservoir is located on Sunshine Creek, a small upper basin tributary of the Greybull River. The earth fill dam is 172 feet high with a crest length of 1,646 feet and has a maximum capacity of 53,515 acre-feet at a pool elevation of 6,595 feet. The reservoir is supplied by water diverted from Greybull River and transported to the reservoir by a 9.5-mile-long canal.
Lower Sunshine Reservoir
Even though operation of Upper Sunshine Reservoir proved to be beneficial, water requirements still exceeded water supply. In February of 1960 the landowners of the District requested an investigation into the possibility of constructing an additional reservoir for further storage water to supply the lands of the District. Shortly thereafter the District hired John Bereman, a registered engineer from Cody to prepare a preliminary engineering report on the proposed Lower Sunshine Reservoir Project.
Construction of Lower Sunshine Reservoir was completed in 1972. This reservoir is also located on Sunshine Creek and is formed by a 162 feet high earth fill dam having a crest length of 1,320 feet and has a maximum capacity of 56,378 acre-feet at a pool elevation of 6,277 feet. The dam is located about 4½ miles downstream from Upper Sunshine Reservoir and about 1½ miles upstream from the confluence of Sunshine Creek and Greybull River. Lower Sunshine Reservoir is supplied with water from two sources. Water is released from Upper Sunshine Reservoir into Lower Sunshine Reservoir and water is also diverted from Wood River through a 1.5-mile-long canal to Simon Gulch which discharges into the reservoir.
Roach Gulch Reservoir
Despite the construction of Upper and Lower Sunshine Reservoirs, GVID members continued to experience water shortages. The construction of Roach Gulch Reservoir was completed in 1999 at a cost of $32,000,000. In a relatively rare decision, Wyoming Water Development Commission (WWDC) agreed to grant GVID 75% of that amount and loan 25% of the cost ($8,000,000) to be paid off in 50 years. It is formed by a 151 feet high earth fill dam having a crest length of 1,795 feet and has a maximum capacity of 33,169 acre-feet at a pool elevation of 4,953 feet. The reservoir is located some twenty-five miles downstream of the two previously constructed reservoirs. One reason this location was selected is that a significant amount of the river flow below Meeteetse results from return flows from irrigated lands. The reservoir site was selected to capture and store these return flows as well as any excess river flow which occurs during the spring runoff period.
This location also makes it substantially closer to the Farmers and Bench canals, which holds substantial storage ownership. Necessary flow changes to these facilities can occur rapidly. Another benefit provided by Roach Gulch is the opportunity for “river leveling” which minimizes flow variations helping deliver consistent diversions to the Farmers and Bench Canals.
For Roach Gulch Reservoir to be approved an “Agreement for Fisheries, Public Access and Bypass Flows” had to be negotiated between GVID, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WF&G) and the WWDC. Six specific provisions were incorporated into this agreement:
1. The minimum bypass flow past Roach Gulch Diversion is 50 cfs or river inflow, whichever is less.
2. No recreational facilities will be established and no fish stocking will occur at Roach Gulch due to extreme reservoir level fluctuations.
3. However, permanent public access is established at Upper Sunshine Reservoir.
4. GVID is to maintain a 5,000 acre-foot minimum pool at Upper Sunshine to assist in preserving the fish population in the reservoir. This pool becomes GVID’s storage water of last resort.
5. A minimum bypass flow of 5 cfs in the Greybull River located at the confluence of the Wood River.
6. The minimum bypass flow of 15 cfs in the Wood River located at the confluence of the Greybull River.
Upper Diversion Rehabilitation
In 2012 the Upper Sunshine Diversion was replaced at a total cost of $3,900,000. WWDC granted 67% of this project and loaned GVID 33% of the construction cost (approximately $1,300,000) to be paid off in 30 years.
Greybull has been attempting to develop hydroelectric plants on one or more of its reservoirs for many years. As of 2016, GVID is working with Wyoming Water Power LLC to develop a 4.5 MW hydro project on Roach Gulch Reservoir Discharge. GVID would ultimately like to establish hydroelectric generation projects on all three of its reservoirs.
For More History of the Big Horn Basin check out: The Bighorn Basin: Wyoming’s Bony Back Pocket