Ayres Park shut to overnight camping due to fear of flooding

DOUGLAS — Ayres Natural Bridge Park is closed to overnight camping again this spring, according to Converse County Commission Chair Jim Willox. 

The closure is for safety precautions, as the LaPrele Dam, which has documented major structural damage, is being kept at a minimum fill level as mandated by State of Wyoming engineers. 

The historic dam is not sitting pretty these days. The dam, well over 100 years old, sits directly above Ayres Natural Bridge Park. Should the dam fail, there would be just 10 minutes to evacuate to safety before the entire area would be underwater, officials stated last year. 

Water levels are not to exceed 5,475 feet high; however, with reportedly high snow pack this season, just 3 inches of rain on top of the snow pack could potentially not only release enough water to raise the level of water in the dam, but overfill it. 

The LaPrele Irrigation District owns the dam, located approximately 27 miles outside of Douglas. 

LaPrele Irrigation Board Member Casey Darr told commissioners March 4 that his organization is taking every precaution to see that does not happen, starting with an earlier release of water into the LaPrele Irrigation District canals. 

“We’re scared of the rain. We will do everything we can to prevent (the water) going over the top (of the dam),” he said. 

He told commissioners that the district would likely start releasing the water down the canals in small increments to clear out the snow and slowly lower the level of water in the dam to prepare for the snowpack melt. 

Willox said overnight camping at the Ayres Natural Bridge Park will resume once the spring melt is over. 

“This isn’t new. This is something we’ve done for the last few years,” he stated. 

In the meantime, Wyoming Water Development continues to study the best place to build a new dam on LaPrele Creek — most likely downstream from the original location. 

Project Manager Chace A. Tavelli told the Budget last fall that progress was being made regarding the new dam. 

“The consultants . . . are in the final stages of what has been a very successful geotechnical drilling program further characterizing the area downstream of the existing dam. The drilling program is investigating properties to aid in the design of abutments, foundation and a plunge pool for a potential downstream dam option as well as investigating potential aggregate sources. 

“Additionally, (Gov. Mark Gordon’s) office has received a response letter from Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) Commissioner (Camille) Touton relative to Carey’s Act Dam language in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The letter to the Governor states that the BOR has determined the LaPrele Dam meets the criteria set forth in the IIJA, and that the funding is non-reimbursable for work performed at LaPrele or other Carey Act dams with IIJA funding,” Tavelli said. “In other words, the BOR would not be seeking repayment, which is very positive news. At this time, the BOR and Water Development Office are coordinating to begin the financial assistance application process.”  

Tavelli did not return requests prior to press time for recent, updated information on the new dam project.