Watershed Wars

  • Cover of "What You See in Clear Water"


"Rather than follow a time line, I've followed the river, pursuing an upstream journey that began in Wind River Canyon and will end at the headwaters near the Continental Divide."

With these words, former High Country News editor Geoffrey O'Gara embarks on a meandering course through Indian dispossession, legal wrangling, floundering farm communities, and reservation politics in Wyoming. O'Gara's new book, What You See in Clear Water: Life on the Wind River Reservation, follows the Shoshone and Arapaho as they grapple with local farmers over control of the Wind River watershed. In the 19th century, tribes saw their water rights chiseled away as the government enticed settlers to irrigate and farm the Wind River Valley.

When 150 years of negotiations proved fruitless, the tribes took the battle from the community hall to the courtroom. At the end of an 11-year legal showdown, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld the tribes' claims in 1989, handing the Shoshone and Arapaho the first Native American water rights affirmed at every level of the court system.

But victory was short-lived, and the tribes never got the chance to reclaim the water for fish and rehabilitate the watershed. As O'Gara notes, "paper" water is not the same as "wet" water. The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled just three years later that management of the Wind River would continue to be overseen by the state. The tribes did not appeal the decision, though new coalitions are forming to improve the watershed.

Instead of deluging the reader with agency acronyms, O'Gara focuses on the personalities and historical forces that have shaped this yet-unresolved fight. An Eritrean engineer, the tribal business council, a Shoshoni biologist, farmers claiming irrigation rights, and sagebrush rebel politicians all illustrate the stresses and frustration that this prolonged fight has inflicted upon reservation residents.

While O'Gara's choice to eschew chronology in favor of loosely assembled sketches and episodes may send the reader thumbing back through previous pages, trying to sort out dates and characters, What You See in Clear Water remains a vivid account of divided communities in an overdrawn watershed.

What You See in Clear Water: Life on the Wind River Reservation, by Geoffrey O'Gara, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Hardcover: $25.00. 285 pages.

High Country News Classifieds