Friday, April 8

In-depth: Wyoming Water Law

Greybull River, downstream from Meeteetse, Wyoming. November 2009.
For the last two days I've spent my time in attendance at a conference on Wyoming water law, hosted by the Cheyenne law firm Hageman and Brighton, which specializes in agricultural water law. Harriet Hageman and Kara Brighton, two well-respected ag attorneys, head the firm. 

Water law in Wyoming, and other western states, is very different than that of other states with more available water. There is only a limited amount of water available every year - that which falls from the sky, and that which has been stored from previous years. Wyoming is referred to as the 'top of the watershed,' as no rivers flow into the state - all its water is on its way out, and many downstream users want all they can get - Las Vegas, Colorado's Front Range, Arizona. The concepts of water law and water rights were just two of the subjects on which I had a learning curve when I started with the Roundup in 2006.

Much of Wyoming's water originates from the mountains, which fill with snowpack throughout the winter and then drain into the lower basins in the spring as much-anticipated runoff. Some water remains in the mountains as glaciers or mountain lakes. There are thousands of small mountain lakes, and they're all beautiful. Wind River Mountains, August 2010.
This is what the mountains are like in the springtime. Many creeks that are mere trickles through the summer become rivers during runoff, and many drainages that run no water in the summer are full of cold, fresh mountain water on its way to lower country in the spring. Big Horn Mountains, June 2010.
Modern Wyoming water law is still based on laws established in the day of the pioneers and the Oregon Trail's heyday. That's because, as settlers made their claims and proved up on their homesteads, they were assigned rights to a certain amount of water to irrigate and supply their acres. Thus, the earliest water rights in Wyoming easily date back to the 1880s, and I wouldn't be surprised if the very first rights were granted even earlier than that.

As the decades have passed, and as land has been passed down through family generations or sold, the original water right moves along with it, maintaining whatever year it was first assigned. That's known as its 'priority.'

Ever since those first homesteads, every new land with water use has been granted a water right. In some areas, no new water rights can be granted, as the local water supply has been 'fully appropriated.' In times of water shortage - drought years - water users submit a call for appropriation to the State Engineer's Office. It's then that the year of your water right is important - the earlier your water right, the better your chances are of getting water. Those with later water rights are just out of luck if the water supply runs out before their year comes up in priority.

As the years have passed, water law has become more and more complex, with complicated compacts and decrees signed with the surrounding states and other downstream users. As you can imagine, much time and money has been spent in court defending Wyoming's water supply, and making sure that our total amount doesn't get called downriver and away from Wyoming users.

Pathfinder Dam, June 2010.
In most years, Wyoming's water supplies are limited, and we carefully measure everything we get. However, the last couple springs have been incredibly better than the previous 25, as far as how much runoff has come out of the mountains. Wyoming has 'lakes' because it has reservoirs, with maintain water for ag and municipal use. One of the biggest reservoirs in the state is Pathfinder, located southwest of Casper, and last spring it overflowed for the first time in 26 years. The spill's novelty was evidenced by the steady stream of onlookers who paid a visit just to gawk at the giant waterfall. Large quantities of excess water aren't often seen in Wyoming. :-)

So there's a little tip of the iceberg on water law and why it exists and why it's so important to Wyoming, and to agricultural producers in Wyoming.

This conference I'm at has addressed water topics, as well as endangered species, sage grouse, carbon sequestration, environmental regulation, the effects of EPA regulation on agricultural operations, instream flow for fisheries, animal welfare and beetle kill's impact on water sources. Needless to say, some topics are naturally more interesting than others, but most of the topics have been very educational, and I've gained a lot of material I can use in future editions of the Roundup.

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