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Gift supports water management in Wyoming

The major gift from the Gretchen Swanson Family Foundation supports University of Wyoming scientists.

February 10, 2023

6 Min Read
Creek through ranch
A creek runs through a ranch in southern Wyoming.Tim Hearden

A gift from the Gretchen Swanson Family Foundation in honor of rancher, large-animal veterinarian and legislator Kurt Bucholz will support something Bucholz was very passionate about — ethical water rights management and hydrology research in Wyoming and the West.

“Kurt would have been so excited and supportive of this program,” says Laura Bucholz, president of the Gretchen Swanson Family Foundation and surviving spouse of Kurt Bucholz. “Water was so important to him, and I think this will have a lasting impact across the state.”

The major gift from the Gretchen Swanson Family Foundation supports the Dr. Kurt S. Bucholz Irrigation Science Excellence Fund, which fosters excellence and provides financial support to the University of Wyoming Department of Ecosystem Science and Management.

“This gift will leave an impression not just on the university, but also on the state of Wyoming as a whole,” says UW President Ed Seidel.

This UW irrigation science excellence fund will support Wyoming agriculture — specifically, it can support a directorship or a graduate student engaged in water rights management or hydrology research. A majority of this gift benefited from state matching dollars, and so the impact of this fund will be even larger.

Bucholz was a well-known Saratoga rancher, veterinarian and Carbon County legislator who was involved in water administration and supply concerns facing the Upper North Platte River Basin. He was the founding member of the Upper North Platte Water Users’ Association and served as president of its board for eight years. In 2002, he was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives. He died in 2006.

Complex conflict resolution

The Bucholz ranch is nestled in the valleys of southern Wyoming among a patchwork of many large ranches whose survival rests on the precious amount of water they can use to irrigate their crops. With help from UW researchers and administrators, as well as those in the Legislature, members of this sprawling community are not only learning more effective methods for water management — they also are paving the way for complex conflict resolution across Wyoming and other drought-prone areas throughout the American West.

“(Ranch manager Bill Clay) and I always felt that the more people had the same information, the better we’d be, if we could all get on the same page,” Laura Bucholz says. “Our group started talking, not fighting but discussing, having reasonable discussions. Not to say it wasn’t a little tense at first, but we’ve come such a long way in the past 10 years. It’s amazing.”

Michael Condict, Upper North Platte Water Users’ Association ranching group coordinator, understands the importance of Wyoming water rights. His family ranch was homesteaded in 1884 and holds water rights in the Brush Creek drainage, Elk Hollow Creek drainage, the Cedar Creek drainage, and points in between.

“Before the program, we spent more time fighting with each other and threatening lawsuits than we did irrigating the water once we had it,” Condict says. “And, in most cases, we really didn’t have any way to know whether the water we were fighting over belonged to who we thought it belonged to. We had no way to determine the priority in any of these streams and, frankly, the state had no way of determining a priority in any of the streams, let alone any ability to administer it if we knew what that priority was.”

The Brush Creek Watershed Project is a model program for irrigation science, technology, management and conflict resolution within the state and beyond. This shared project of UW and the ranching community advances cooperative and effective administration of water rights among ranchers and other users of the watershed. It has allowed the Brush Creek water rights to move from paper to a real-world digital model.

'An important voice'

“The general idea is to provide administration during the summer and to provide an impartial voice at the table when discussing irrigation matters,” says Joseph Cook, a UW graduate student who serves as irrigation administrator. “Our main roles are ensuring that each person has the correct amount of water and, in order to do that, we have to start by predicting each day how much of the water is supposed to go in each ditch, and we then spend the rest of the day going around the system trying to match flows as closely as possible to the predictions.”

The administrative focus of the project includes conflict resolution, overcoming decades of contentious debate, and the science focus of the project includes computer modeling to calculate water rights priorities in real time. This reduced conflict puts everyone on the same page and allows the state and local engineers to focus on better managing the resource, rather than resolving that conflict.

The Watershed Hydrology Graduate Assistantship, also established by the Gretchen Swanson Family Foundation, is a vital part of the Brush Creek project. This endowment supports the graduate student in the UW College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources who manages the program.

“The university’s involvement with this project has been instrumental in resolving water rights conflicts within Wyoming, and I am thrilled that we will be able to expand this concept to other regions that are in need of solutions,” Seidel says.

The graduate assistantship fund, managed through the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, specifies that it goes to a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in hydrologic sciences or rangeland ecology and watershed management at UW. Support can last five years and can cover the majority of costs for the student to pursue innovative research toward the betterment of water management in Wyoming.

The Gretchen Swanson Family Foundation honors Kurt Bucholz’s mother, Gretchen Swanson (Bucholz) Velde, who served as president of the foundation. An active and dedicated philanthropist in Omaha, Neb., Velde spent much of her life contributing to nutrition, education, and the arts in memory of her family. She also served on numerous boards.

Family legacy

Swanson was the daughter of Carl Swanson, a turn-of-the-century produce wholesaler who founded frozen-food giant C.A. Swanson and Sons Co., which developed the TV dinner. The company merged with Campbell Soup Co. in 1955.

The Gretchen Swanson Family Foundation gift was received during the eighth annual UW Giving Day, a philanthropic tradition spearheaded by the UW Foundation that takes place online and across campus (www.uwyo.edu/givingday).

“It’s inspiring, the ways this community continues to give back,” says John Stark, president and CEO of the UW Foundation. “I am filled with gratitude and admiration for the impact this will have for the fine people of this university.”

To find out more about the Brush Creek Watershed Project, watch this UW Foundation video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjf04lNNhss.

Source: University of Wyoming Extension

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