Riverton council took under advisement a plan to equalize irrigation district charges within city to preserve water rights

Public Works Director Bill Urbigkit explained water rights to the city council Tuesday night and why he is proposing to equalize what city residents are charged for irrigation water. On the map, the red color indicates the LeClair Irrigation District and the green is the Riverton Valley Irrigation District. (Ernie Over photo) 

(Riverton, Wyo.) – Riverton is served by two irrigation districts, Riverton Valley on the east side of town and LeClair on the west side. Thanks to action taken in 1947 and reaffirmed in 1997, the City of Riverton pays all irrigation fees for those residents served by the Riverton Valley system. Residents served by the LeClair system,  however, pay the fees themselves, even though they may not use the water. That could be changing.

In a complex and far reaching discussion during a Riverton City Council work session Tuesday night, Public Works Director Bill Urbigkit led the council through the city’s history with the two irrigation districts, water rights and why he thought the city needed to treat residents on the LeClair system the same way they’ve done with those on the RVID system.

“Basically, back in 1947, instead of charging each city lot, Riverton Valley agreed to treat the town as a large farm, and the city agreed to pick up the assessment,” Urbigkit said. That is what he is now proposing to do on the city’s west side, while updating the 1977 RVID agreement to account for the city’s growth.

“I’m giving you a heads up, LeClair is in a difficult financial situation and their elected board is raising rates this year,” Urbigkit told the council. He said the LeClair assessment would go up from $50 to $77 per lot and that a one time assessment on each lot of $100 is being proposed.” Urbigkit said the increase in fees would be on top of a city assessment for maintaining the ditches and headgates that run through town. “Once these notices go out, you’re going to hear about it,” Urbigkit said.

The public works director said his fear is that some residents won’t want to pay the higher fees if they don’t get the water. “If they don’t pay, they could have a lien attached to their property or they could petition to abandon their water right,” which he said the latter would be the worst case scenario for the city.

“LeClair’s water right is a 1906 right, and city’s water treatment plant has a 1977 right,” he explained. “In a very dry year, if a call is made on the river, the most senior water right gets the water. If a water right is abandoned, its gone forever.” Urbigkit proposed to pay the LeClair assessment for city residents this year, about $100,000, and then negotiate a rate similar to that the city pays Riverton Valley for future years. “That way we can protect the 1906 water right and, down the road convert them to municipal use with landowner permission.”

“If we don’t have water, we won’t have economic growth. It will stymie our growth,” he said.

In answer to a question from Councilor Jonathan Faubion, Urbigkit said the city could absorb the $100,000 cost “by putting a band aid on a water main for another year. It would be a one time cost, and roughly $28,000 a  year thereafter. We can work it into the budget,” he said.

Wanting some direction from the council, Urbigkit didn’t total agreement at Tuesday’s meeting. Mayor Ron Warpness and Council member John “Lars” Baker were in favor of Urbigkit to pursue an agreement with LeCalir, but Richard Gard said the issue of water rights was too important to rush into a decision. “We need to set time aside to discuss this in detail,” he said. The item will be added to the next work session agenda giving the council time to digest the information presented by the public works director.