NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Western Water Rights are Changing

July 12, 2002

In a reflection of the West's rapid growth, changing demographics and pressures from environmentalists, water in streams and rivers is being reserved for fishermen, kayakers and nature lovers -- largely at the expense of farmers and ranchers.

Water rights have always been a contentious issue in the West and a whole body of law has grown up defining them. Water scarcity led the West to develop water allocation laws far different from the rest of the country during the 19th century.

  • In the West, anyone who diverts water for what the law calls "beneficial use" -- usually for agriculture or cities -- can obtain a right to that water even if he or she owns no land along the river or stream -- and those who first use the water generally keep their rights.
  • Western water law also has traditionally had a "use it or lose it" penalty -- so that if a farmer or rancher fails to put water to "beneficial use," he can lose his right to it.
  • Now, environmentalists and policymakers are increasingly arguing that leaving water in streams is a "beneficial use."
  • While some farmers and ranchers tend to go along with the idea, most don't and they have allies in home building associations.

In Colorado, for example, tourism and recreation have become bigger industries than farming -- and they depend on water in streams for fishing, kayaking and other recreational purposes. Towns such as Golden, Vail, Breckenridge and Pueblo are fighting court cases to win the use of water in rivers for whitewater rafting courses.

Last year, Golden won the right to keep enough water in the stream that runs through the city to support kayaking. But that decision is being challenged by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency that oversees the development of water projects such as dams and reservoirs.

Whatever the outcome, the clash between agriculture and recreation is only the latest chapter in the long history of Western water wars.

Source: Tom Kenworthy, "West Sees Shift in Water Use," USA Today, July 12, 2002.

For text


Browse more articles on Environment Issues