It's a familiar saying but also insightful: Wyoming is a small town with long streets. In a state where everybody knows everybody, trust is a critical factor in finding ways to solve our complex water challenges.
For too long, however, a legacy of distrust has made it difficult for stakeholders to find commonsense solutions to stream flow protection and restoration in Wyoming.
In part, the impasse can be traced to a controversial ballot initiative in the mid-1980s. According to some observers, the effort threatened to wrest water control away from the State Engineer's Office and establish a regulatory process that could take water from the state's biggest and most important water user, the agricultural community. To others, the ballot initiative was a necessary response to an unfair and shortsighted water allocation system that left streams drained and fish stranded.
Each side found it hard to see the other's point of view.
The result: the 1986 Wyoming Legislature passed a procedurally cumbersome instream flow bill that has yet to "restore" streamflows anywhere in Wyoming. It's a bill that left little if any role for private landowners in protecting and restoring streamflows – this despite the fact that over half of Wyoming's 21,600 stream miles flow through private lands. And despite the fact that the continued existence of healthy fisheries in Wyoming, like healthy wildlife, depends on the ability and willingness of private landowners to improve streams on their land.
As we detailed in the report "Wyoming Water, Wyoming Solutions," we need a balanced, pragmatic approach to managing water in Wyoming that gives landowners more rights and more options in how they use their water. Specifically, TU is proposing a statutory update that allows private landowners to use their water rights more flexibly and creatively to support healthy stream flows and fisheries.
Wyoming farmers and ranchers have a strong conservation ethic. As rancher Kerry Powers notes in this report: "As private landowners, we're always looking for creative ways to manage our land for continued cattle use and fish and wildlife benefits." Powers would like to have the option of using his water right to benefit fisheries habitat.
But current Wyoming law strongly discourages that alternative. "I'm concerned that Wyoming law limits private landowners in this regard," Kerry said. "The law should always be flexible when it comes to respecting the rights of landowners, especially where agriculture and natural resources could both benefit from such flexibility."
Trout Unlimited is committed to a strategy that values landowner choices, collaborative success stories, additional revenue generation on-ranch, and innovation to protect both ranchlands and fisheries. TU knows this can work – because we've seen it work. We've partnered with ranchers and farmers on dozens of successful projects in the West that both enhance landowner water rights and restore streams and trout fisheries.
It can work here in Wyoming, too - but only if stakeholders on all sides are willing to collaborate and try new approaches to old problems.
There's a Wyoming solution out there - working together, we can find it.
Scott Yates – Director
TU Wyoming Water Project