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Trout Unlimited started the Western Water Project in 1998 with a commitment to working at the state level to gain a voice for coldwater resources in the West. From its beginnings, the Project faced innumerable challenges. There was the seemingly intractable doctrine of prior appropriation and its underlying principal that water could only be used for defined beneficial purposes, which included nearly everything but healthy flowing streams and rivers.
The project also faced previously immobile beliefs that water used for fish and the environment meant water taken away from people, an attitude that was often echoed in the halls of state capital buildings. Part and parcel of that notion was the entrenched idea that when it came to water, agriculture and the conservation movement had nothing in common.
The Project took those beliefs and traditions head on. Working in the states of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and California, it used science and legal-based knowledge, coupled with grassroots mobilization, to effectively challenge the fundamental principles underlying western water law as well as the perceptions surrounding what constitutes a beneficial use of water. To help accomplish this, the Project reached out to create working partnerships with non-traditional allies, including irrigators, landowners, water suppliers and state and federal agencies.
Today, the success of the Project and its partners can be seen throughout the West. Laws are in place in several states that now allow water right holders to use all or part of their water to benefit fish. Important trout and salmon waters have been saved by legal challenges brought by the Project. Long-term working partnerships have been formed with irrigators and landowners throughout the region to help create and enhance healthy flows on fragile trout streams. Educational campaigns have changed the character of the debate and the understanding of the benefits that healthy flowing streams bring not only to fish, but to the economic vitality of the region.