Discussing Water Rights, A Western Pastime

A little Western water humor by Paul Stanton for Duckboy Cards Inc.

In lieu of Freshwater Species of the Week this time around, I wanted to share this postcard I picked up a few years ago in Idaho. Made by Duckboy Cards Inc. of Hamilton, Montana, it pokes fun at an area of tension that has affected much of the dry West, as well as many other countries around the world.

Freshwater is an increasingly scarce and sought-after resource, as human civilization continues to expand in numbers and complexity. Water rights can also be complex and byzantine. In many areas, the more water you use, the less you pay per gallon, which can discourage conservation. Further, many water users find that their annual allotment will decrease if they use less the previous year–this can also discourage conservation.

But there are signs of hope, too. As we recently reported, water conservation partners (including National Geographic) got together to restore water to the parched Yampa River in Colorado. Farmers, ranchers, and municipal water users agreed to lease unused allotments for a one-time benefit to conservation.

Those original water users won’t see their quotas decrease in the future, thanks to a new Colorado law, but the Yampa received much-needed flows that helped sustain wildlife and recreation activities along the river. This proved to be a boon to tubers, river raft outfitters, and fishermen, as well as farmers and ranchers, who received extra payments.

Water rights can indeed make people want to pick up shovels and go after their neighbors, but the good news is there are many examples of productive discussions among stakeholders that result in win-win situations at best, and at the least compromises that can keep the peace.

Farmers, ranchers, industries, cities, anglers, tubers, outfitters, kayakers, governments, tribes, environmentalists, and citizens all have legitimate concerns when it comes to water rights, and there is a great deal of room for reform, so everyone can enjoy the great West and beyond.

To help make a difference for the Colorado River today, join Change the Course