Unless we speak up now, our County Commissioners, at least a majority of them, are about to give up our Sheridan Area Water Supply (SAWS) rural water rights to the City of Sheridan.
The county customers built the SAWS system. The SAWS Joint Powers Board (JPB) was created to ensure our rural water rights were protected even as the city and county fused individual water infrastructure systems together to create one contiguous water delivery system.
The fate of SAWS is ours to determine, not theirs!
SAWS is in "Great shape" according to Dan Roberts the city’s utility director. We've built the county portion of the system, financed it for 35 years, built up at least $6 million dollars in reserves to repair it when maintenance issues arise, it serves 2,000 rural customers today and has a capacity to serve additional 2,000.
The City of Sheridan, has allowed their own water system inside the city limits to fall into areas of major disrepair. A system that city staff has admitted needs some $100 million dollars in repairs over the next 10-15 years. One example is the Brooks Street project being impacted by failing water lines above the County Courthouse.
Another is the abandonment of the #1 city priority replacement of the Ductile Iron Pipeline from the airport that delivers water to the Powderhorn, Little Goose, and Bighorn Areas due to increased costs which the city has recently chosen to defer to a future date. So much for it being a #1 priority. This at a time when the city has record receipts from 1 cent money that could be used to offset the increased cost.
While at the same time, many of the same city council members and mayor are very aware of the ambitions of realtors and land developers who are wanting to do what they've done now for more than two decades, expand their business interests by extending the city limits. When you talk about driving economic development you are increasing the tax base, however, those in the existing areas of the city are suffering the consequences of these actions leaving old neighborhoods to fend for themselves. The city’s expansion and growth will weigh heavily on the county’s rural customers especially as the county rates are based on the cities rates.
The rural customers lose their representation if the SAWSJPB is dissolved.
Getting rid of the JPB and forming a committee is not an answer and here is why. Speaking to the proposed dissolution agreement, the last-minute change of the word "adoption" to "ratification" of decisions made by the proposed committee already indicates an intent to weaken the agreement. Know that this committee is merely advisory by its construction. Those two words have completely different legal meanings, and the “ratification” of proposed rates does not, a done deal make. However, “adoption” of those rates might. This proposed committee has no statutory power.
Answers to the three questions that have been repeatedly asked by rural water customers over the past few weeks now that this issue has finally come to light are:
Who is pushing this dissolution? Story House Village, as referenced in the video of the discussion on applying for two grants, ARPA & WWDC, in the 1 August and 8 August City Council meetings. It is now obvious that the City needs our SAWS assets, and the income from rural water sales, to finance a Northeast Transmission Pipeline.
Why are they pushing it? Story House Village needs water.
Why now? Because, on 8 November, 2023, the day after the City Council and County Commissioners would vote to dissolve SAWS, the Wyoming Water Development Commission is meeting to decide whether or not to fund a grant for Northeast Water Transmission Pipeline! That’s the rush.
City leadership are claiming the County Commissioners are pushing this dissolution (reference the 23 Oct 2023 work session video) and the County Commissioners counter-claimed they are not pushing it (reference Commissioner Siddle’s comments from the 24 Oct 2023 SAWSJPB Public Hearing). So, who is pushing it? How did we get to this point why it is moving forward for final dissolution if neither of the parties to the board is pushing it? Is there some outside influence at work here? We are being left in the dark. Obviously, we can only suspect it is because a lot of money could be made by some who are influencing our electeds.
Questions posed by posed by Councilor’s Patceg and Jennings at the 23 Oct 2023 City Council Work Session regarding the question as to why a rate study has not been done to determine if there will be any financial or administrative efficiencies from a dissolution have not been answered. The presenter’s only answer was that doing a study before the city gets control would “complicate” the issue and raise questions that could disrupt the transfer. The city went on to state, in reference to additional questions posed by Councilor’s Patceg and Jennings was that such a study would take 6-9 months and could potentially delay other city projects in the works. What projects? No one will say.
After more questioning, the city official went on to explain that such as study would need to include all future capital construction projects the city might expect over the next couple of decades to ensure the rates are properly forecast and potential savings identified. Otherwise, we will find that any predicted savings may never have existed at all. Is this a case of, “We have to pass this dissolution agreement before you can find out what the result of the agreement could be?”
Here are a few of the proposed capital projects we’ve heard about to date:
A Northeast Expansion Pipeline which would bring water to the proposed Story House Village (recently annexed into the city limits) will likely result in a need for another storage facility or two and a water and sewage treatment plant; and
All $100 million in city system repairs noted earlier; and
In addition, the city is contemplating a 40-mile-long pipeline designed to allow access to the City of Sheridan’s water rights in Lake DeSmet (Note: a similar length pipeline between Colorado Springs, CO and the Pueblo Reservoir cost more than $1 billion to construct 10 years ago).
That last one, the Lake DeSmet pipeline would, “be of greater benefit to the county than the city,” according to city officials who stated so at the 23 Oct 2023 City Council work session meeting. Who do you think will pay for this one if the city already believes the benefit of the city’s water right at DeSmet will go to the rural customers? Of course, that’s not to say city customers won’t see their bills go up commensurately too since every time you add infrastructure, someone must pay to maintain it and there are not enough rural customers to rely on in Sheridan.
Read the SAWSJPB’s lawyer’s September 8, 2015 letter regarding consolidation. That letter describes a plethora of reasons that dissolving the board would not only a bad idea, but likely not doable. This letter was the key document that halted the move to dissolve the JPB back then. The reasonings in the letter range from water rights and cross-jurisdictional boundary issues to rural representation and basic political subdivision issues (and more). The saddest point regarding this letter is that four of the six members on the current SAWSJPB indicated they had not been provided that 2015 letter (two members were Commissioners back then), even after the content of the letter was brought to the attention of the board’s chairwoman during their meeting in August this year. Additionally, when asked at a recent meeting if the SAWSJPB lawyer Mr. Wendtland believes those concerns have been resolved, his answer was simply no. Which is also likely why the County’s and City’s legal teams have been tasked to work on the dissolution agreement this time.
The County’s portion of SAWS remains in the black after 35 years of operation and looks to stay that way for decades to come. As noted earlier, the city of Sheridan just recently chose to give state grant funds back because, as the city said, they could not afford to do their #1 priority waterline repair project, the airport waterline.
An axiom is a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true.
1) Taxes never go down and they never go away,
2) Once a right is taken, you may never get it back, and
3) Power and authority invested in a single vessel results in tyranny.
If we allow our electeds to "take away" or "give away" control of our right to our water and the infrastructure we built, we will be at the mercy of a growing administrative empire, smack dab in in the middle of North Central Wyoming.
I ask that each of you who reads this come to the City Council meeting on November 6th and the County Commissioner’s Meeting on November 7th that will decide the fate of the dissolution agreement regarding the SAWSJPB dissolution issue.
As Mark Twain once said when talking about the political struggle regarding western water rights, “Whiskey’s for drinking, Water’s for fighting.”
Bryan Miller, Cell# 307-920-0215, Property owner in both the City of Sheridan and the SAWS County areas – 31 Oct 23