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Know the West

Be careful with water transfers

  Your article "Taking the West Forward" nailed a key issue that typically escapes public notice: the system of water rights in the West that gives priority to the oldest users of water and typically requires water to be taken out of streams to be protected as a valid use (HCN, 12/6/04: Taking the West Forward). This system of water rights has often left cities and the region’s streams and rivers "high and dry."

Water-right transfers are part of the solution to the West’s current drought, and to the long-term sustainability of life in the arid West. Trout Unlimited’s Montana Water Project has been working with the agriculture community to secure temporary transfers of irrigation water rights to improve flows in trout streams for several years.

However, Montana is among a handful of Western states that have the flexibility to transfer an irrigation water right to provide streamflows, and even in Montana these transfers are currently limited to temporary arrangements. Also, for good or ill, 100-plus years of water use has altered the hydrology of virtually all Western watersheds. And as water is moved around to other uses, it must be done carefully, without injuring other water users. If change is to occur without putting a boot on the throat of farming (or anyone else), then moving water from one use and place to another will and must be a slow, careful process.

Laura Ziemer, Trout Unlimited
Bozeman, Montana