CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A federal judge has ordered a Fremont County irrigation district and a former manager to start work immediately to remove four dikes that he ruled were illegally constructed in the channel of the Wind River, west of Riverton.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson last week ordered the LeClair Irrigation District to pay $250,000 in fines and ordered former manager John Hubenka to pay $350,000. Johnson specified the fines would drop to $35,000 against Hubenka alone if he and the district complete the required work by April 30, 2015.
Johnson wrote that construction of the largest of the dikes, called Dike No. 1, caused the Wind River to abandon its traditional route and instead flow through a new channel to the south. This, he said, caused the loss of wetlands and resulted in quick erosion of the new, southern channel.
In addition to ordering the district and Hubenka to remove the four dikes, Johnson ordered them to reconstruct the riverbank and construct a new dike or “plug” to allow the river to flow again in its historic northern channel.
In his ruling, Johnson wrote that Hubenka had been convicted of criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act in 2004 by placing materials in the Wind River. Stating that Hubenka ignored an earlier court order to remove the materials, Johnson wrote that he has, “defiantly thumbed his nose at the law.”
Johnson stated that the irrigation district was responsible for Hubenka’s actions in building Dike No. 1, which was installed in about 2000. The district has undertaken several projects over the years, sometimes with federal permission, to prevent erosion of the river bank that could compromise its canal that carries water to the district’s members, mainly farmers in the Riverton area.
An attempt to reach a lawyer for the irrigation district wasn’t immediately successful on Monday.
Daniel Frank, a Cheyenne lawyer representing Hubenka, said Monday that the river moved into the southern channel a couple of years before the construction of Dike No. 1. Frank said the other three dikes are much smaller, and amount essentially to piles of rock that came from the riverbed in the first place.
Johnson’s ruling states that Hubenka gained a few hundred acres of land at the expense of the Wind River Indian Reservation when the river shifted, which he later sold. However, Frank said that was inaccurate. He said the formal property boundaries were surveyed long ago and haven’t been affected by subsequent movements of the river.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe share the Wind River Indian Reservation. The tribes joined in the lawsuit, which was originally filed by the federal government, against Hubenka and the irrigation district. Johnson’s order states tribal officials will help oversee removal of the dikes.
The Northern Arapaho issued a statement following Johnson’s ruling.
“Arapaho leaders have been pushing for decades to get Hubenka and LeClair to respect the river and stop destroying good hunting areas along its banks,” said Al Addison a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council. “The court’s ruling shows that the Arapaho people were right to keep fighting to hold these defendants accountable.”