Water recommendation revisits old ground near regional airport

Water is a fuel for economic development and a recent meeting underscored the need for water in the Middle Baxter Road area near the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport.

Members of the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition discussed the second phase of a study aimed at developing the area into an industrial site attracting businesses which would complement the county's existing trona and coal industries.

Infrastructure is largely unavailable in the area. 

Water, electricity and natural gas would be needed before any development could occur and the largest challenge for development would be providing water to the area. The authors of the study, William H Smith and Associates and Thomas P. Miller and Associates, recommend the construction of a water storage tank with 2-2.5 million gallons of capacity and a 8-12-inch waterline to service the area. This isn't the first time a project to bring water to the area has been proposed. A proposal to extend a waterline from Rock Springs to the airport was floated more than a decade ago.

"It was under my past years as mayor (during the) early 2000s," Tim Kaumo, mayor of Rock Springs, said, "We actually flew out to Washington, D.C. and tried to get federal funding for the project, but failed."

That project aimed to bring water to the airport while providing additional water to the Simplot facility and the Arrowhead Springs subdivision south of Rock Springs. Paul Kauchich, director of engineering and operations for the City of Rock Springs, said the plan would have connected those locations into the Joint Powers Water Board system, which provides water to Green River and Rock Springs.

The idea to bring water to the area dates back further than the 2000s according to Mark Kot, public lands specialist for Sweetwater County.

Kot said the idea was talked about when he first was hired by the county in 1983 and believes conversations took place as far back as the 1970s.

"This has been going on for a long time," Kot said.

Prior to being the county's public lands specialist, Kot was director of the county land use department, having worked his way up through the office over the course of his career. During the early 1980s, the county was coming out of a booming period following the construction and development of the Jim Bridger Power Plant and nearby Bridger coal mine. Following that economic boom, Kot said county and community leaders wanted to bring development into the area to alleviate the economic bust and saw potential in developing land surrounding Green River and Rock Springs. While land use regulations differ between the cities and the county, he said the idea at the time was a unified view for development would benefit everyone in the county.

The county worked with representatives of both cities' Councils and their planning and zoning boards, among other stakeholders, to form a 40-person committee which created the Sweetwater County Growth Management Plan, which included boundaries for a growth management area. Kot said the plan also attempted to create similar planning regulations between the county and the two cities, make accommodations to preserve viewsheds of the area's landscape, plan for the expansion of infrastructure, consider the compatibility of multiple land uses and plan for the possibility of annexing lands into the county or cities.

The growth management area extends west of Green River to Peru Hill, north of Rock Springs to 14-Mile Hill, and includes land east of the airport and south to Arrowhead Springs. Kot said the additions of the airport and Arrowhead Springs were to include land identified for future industrial development if infrastructure was developed. 

Yet, some developmental challenges existed. The biggest problem developers faced then, as they do now: water.

"We knew the airport needed water," he said.

Devon Brubaker, director of the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport, said the airport receives water deliveries trucked in from Rock Springs in 6,000-gallon shipments. Those shipments help feed the airport's daily usage which averages 3,500-4,200 gallons. Brubaker said the 300,000-gallon water storage and distribution system at the airport limits the its ability to compete for large-scale investments like maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities he said bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars into a community. In Provo, Utah, Duncan Aviation recently constructed a $50 million facility Brubaker said would bring 700 high-paying jobs to the area.

"For us to be competitive in discussions on projects of this magnitude, we can't start out saying, 'we have the land and airfield infrastructure for you, but we will need to work around the water issue,'" Brubaker wrote in an email to the Star.

He said developers want the ability to connect directly into a municipal water supply for both drinking water and a ready source for fire suppression. The airport is required to have at least 145,000 gallons of water, more than one-third of its storage capacity, available to fight a fire. In the summer, the tank's limitations also make it difficult for the airport to maintain EPA drinking water standards because it uses a disinfection process to keep the water clean for its needed fire flow amounts, but results in more disinfectant by-products in the water.

"The larger the facility or facility-hazard classification will result in a higher inventory requirement making the management of these competing interests even harder," Brubaker said.

While water would support growth at the airport, a line from Rock Springs would also give developers a convenient place to access water for nearby industrial projects.

Kot said developers have occasionally looked at the land near the airport to develop on. He attended a tour of the area with Wal-Mart representatives as they were seeking land to build a distribution center on. With access to the interstate, a railroad, a regional airport and a large population center nearby, water was the only piece missing for the retail giant. The company would build its distribution facility in Cheyenne.

"We just weren't quick enough," Kot said. "Cheyenne had things in place. We didn't."

One of the largest hurdles any project to provide water to the airport is the cost to do so.

Kayla McDonald, economic development specialist for the SEDC, said the costs to bring water to the area are still being determined because the amount of water needed is dependent on the type of industry SEDC wants to attract. Despite not having a project cost identified, one avenue the SEDC is looking at to cover those construction costs is grant funding. 

Kauchich said costs and how to pay for the project have always been the issue with bringing water to the area. He doesn't recall the amount sought to pay for a water line in the 2000s, but said a lack of funding is what ended the idea. 

The familiar boom and bust cycle in Wyoming's energy-dependent economy has led to a cycle in Sweetwater County where leaders, seeking to develop the area's economy beyond a struggling minerals industry, look to large swaths of undeveloped land outside of Rock Springs as a ticket to a more diversified economy. While names change, such as the Sweetwater Economic Development Association being replaced by SEDC, the aim remains the same.

With the Sweetwater County Growth Management Plan, Kot said support from Rock Springs eroded when the plan was presented for approval.

A meeting at the Sweetwater County Courthouse to approve the plan derailed when both cities sent fewer Council representatives to the meeting than the quorum needed for a vote.

While the Green River City Council would join the county commissioners in adopting the plan, Kot said the Rock Springs City Council declined to approve it.

While he admits the management plan had some successes and larger failures after the county adopted it, he sees the SEDC approach more refined than what was done with the growth management plan.

"SEDC is more sophisticated than what we were doing," Kot said. "We were drawing lines on a map by hand."


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