Wild and Scenic creates water rights concern
Casper – Although some in the U.S. think the national Wild and Scenic Rivers program will protect some of the country’s prettiest rivers, landowners in Wyoming are concerned about protecting the state’s water rights.
“Our position is very clear. We’ve had longstanding policy that we oppose any designation of Wild and Scenic Rivers in Wyoming,” says Wyoming Stock Growers Executive Vice President Jim Magagna.
Up until the recently proposed inclusion of a large segment of the Snake River in the program, only a small segment – 20 miles – of the Clarks Fork in northwest Wyoming has been enrolled in the program.
“Sen. Thomas had brought a bill to the legislature that would designate over 400 miles of the Snake and its tributaries, but Sen. Barrasso has reduced the bill to 397 miles,” says Magagna. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with Sen. Barrasso, and we continue to oppose the bill, but we’ve begun to focus on some things that bother us the most.”
One of those things is the protection of Wyoming’s water rights. “The water rights language is something on which we’ve worked with Sen. Barrasso to assure that if the Wild and Scenic designation does go forward, any water rights are established through state water law and not through a federal reserve water right approach.”
“You do not turn control of water over to the federal government, because water management is under the control of the Wyoming Board of Control, and that’s where it should stay,” says Shoshoni rancher and past WSGA President Lois Herbst. “The government cannot own or co-own water rights because they have no beneficial use for it.”
“Hopefully it won’t affect our control over water,” says Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell. “Sen. Thomas proposed the Snake River as Wild and Scenic, and it’s in the middle of a bunch of Wyoming water rights, so it’s our goal to make sure the designation is done through the Wyoming water rights system.”
“The original Wild and Scenic Act does talk about federally reserved water rights, but in this legislation we want them to provide a mechanism so the Snake River would be done through the Wyoming permitting process so the state has the permit,” explains Tyrrell. “If it’s done that way we protect our existing rights and Wyoming’s ability to continue to develop infrastructure under the state water rights.”
Herbst says that’s one of her fears – that no further development would be allowed on either the Snake River itself or any of its tributaries.
“It’s a socialist idea to give control of any resource to the federal government, and they already control too much land in Wyoming,” she continues. “We know what happened with public forest health and the beetle infestation. Those agencies, even when they know how to manage a resource, have their hands tied by environmentalists, who keep bringing lawsuits.”
Herbst says the people in Lincoln County do not want the Wild and Scenic designation, which would include Lincoln and Teton counties. “If the people of Jackson want it, who cares. They don’t give us ground on anything and they would kick every cow out of the state if they could get by with it.”
“The federal government tells us the designation will not change the way we manage our livestock and it won’t impact private lands because there’s so little private land involved, but any time we turn management of a resource over to the government they write the rules and develop how it’ll be used,” she emphasizes. “Think back to the wolf and how they haven’t lived up to their agreements about the wolf.”
“Their goal is to get a designation as Wild and Scenic, and that does give the federal government the ability to file for the protection of the water on the river,” notes Tyrrell. “What it does not allow is for them to take water away from existing water rights, not does it diminish our ability to develop existing compacts.”
Tyrrell says he thinks the designation would lie pretty lightly on the river. “I don’t see it as a way to dictate management on the river.”
Magagna says the latest he knew, Sen. Barrasso’s version of the bill had that language in it. However, the chairman of the Energy and Resources Committee, which will see the bill, has his own committee draft of the bill that he put together and it does not bind water rights to state water law. Magagna says Sen. Barrasso’s staff is going to meet with the chairman’s staff to discuss the differences between the two.
“The specific language regarding state water rights is unique to the Snake River legislation,” says Magagna. “While we don’t want to see a bill at all, but if we do we want to be sure we get the water rights language into it.”
Currently the bill is at a standstill, waiting for the Energy and Resources Committee to schedule a hearing.
“We wish the bill would go away, but at a minimum we want to make sure the water rights issue is addressed,” says Magagna. “Also, there is language included by Sen. Barrasso that enumerates the list of activities that will be allowed to continue under the designation, which is very helpful.”
“Jim Magagna has worked with Sen. Barrasso, trying to make it a better bill than what they have now, but to begin with it’s completely wrong,” says Herbst. “I do appreciate what Sen. Barrasso and Sen. Enzi do for us, but they’re doing something we’re opposed to.”
Tyrrell recently visited Washington, D.C., where he stopped in to visit with Sen. Barrasso about the bill. “We’re still helping with the wordsmithing of the bill, there’s still going to be time before it gets active consideration. Our goal is to make it lies as lightly on the land as possible.”
To view a current version of the Snake River’s Wild and Scenic legislation, visit thomas.loc.gov/ and search for bill number S1281. Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.