While the question of who owns Lake De Smet these days remains up in the air, Johnson County has established an operating board to manage the lake.

The three-member board has been named just in time.

Local ranchers will need water in May or June – depending on snowpack and other factors – for hay and alfalfa crops. The lake, north of Buffalo along Interstate 90, has complicated contract, junior and senior water rights.

“What we need is somebody to turn on the valve and deliver the amount of water we are due when we need it,” said Bob LeResche, a Sheridan County rancher and member of the Pratt and Ferris Ditch Co., which is a cooperative-style business with Lake De Smet water rights.

The question of who owns the lake has been up in the air since November, when co-owners Sheridan and Johnson counties agreed Sheridan County would sell out of the lake in exchange for Johnson County signing an agreement with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that would protect fishing and recreation in the lake.

Now the counties are waiting on the state Game and Fish Commission, which is waiting for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the proposed contract.

“Sheridan County commissioners are convinced that Johnson County owns it,” said Jim Hicks, a Johnson County commissioner who also has been named to the lake operating board.

Messages to a Sheridan County commissioner who was involved in the lake and an attorney who advised Sheridan County on the lake were not returned.

But Hicks noted that the Game and Fish Commission has not signed the deal. Sheridan County could still be a lake owner.

“I think it’s still in limbo,” he said. “But that’s my own personal opinion.”

Questions aside, Johnson County commissioners on Tuesday named members of the operating board. In addition to Hicks, the list includes Rande Money, the Johnson County technology officer, and Harvey Crowe, a former Texaco engineer who worked on the lake. Texaco formerly owned Lake De Smet.

In addition to the operating board, Johnson County commissioners plan to form an advisory board with six or seven stakeholders. They could include representatives from the sporting community, conservation groups, Game and Fish, Sheridan County and water rights holders, Hicks said.

The lake was previously managed by staff at the Lake DeSmet Counties Coalition Joint Powers Board. Hicks said that the staff vacated the office after the tentative agreement between Johnson and Sheridan counties was announced. Who told the staff to leave is a mystery to Hicks.

“The coalition staff locked the doors to their office, disconnected the computers and the telephones and I have never found out who ordered them to close the office,” he said. “We thought there would be a more seamless transition. But it did not happen.”

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Staffers left behind spreadsheets and computers that were used to release the water. Hicks is confident the new operators will figure it out, and they have already been using the information left behind to monitor pumps. State employees have also been helpful, he said.

“It’s going to be different people,” Hicks said. “Operations should stay pretty much the same.”

The soonest the Game and Fish Commission could approve the lake lease would be at a July meeting in Saratoga, said Carrie Little, a Game and Fish commissioner.

Mark Fowden, fish division chief at Wyoming Game and Fish, said Gov. Matt Mead also needs to approve the deal. Fowden has been in communication with Fish and Wildlife Service employees in Denver and he doesn’t anticipate any huge disagreements.

Under the deal, Game and Fish would get some junior water rights for 99 years in exchange for almost $3 million that would go to Johnson County. Johnson County would buy out Sheridan County for $500,000.

The $3 million comes from taxes people pay when they buy boats or angling equipment. The tax money goes to the federal government but is returned to Wyoming for certain projects.