New water rights bill would allow holders to change use, help fish

Oct 24, 2012

Representative Rosie Berger of Big Horn is sponsoring a bill that would allow water rights holders to temporarily change their use to benefit certain fisheries areas in the state.

Under current law, if a private citizen wants to restore in-stream-flow on his property, he must permanently donate his water rights to the state. Also, holders can lose their water rights if they don’t use them to their full extent. Berger’s bill would allow holders to retain water rights, even if they stop irrigating part-way through the summer… thus leaving more water for the fish.

The conservation group Trout Unlimited supports the bill. Cory Toye (TOY) directs the group’s Wyoming Water Project. He says water levels in some tributaries become too low or too warm for fish to travel or spawn.

“Then the habitat is lost, and there may be an adverse impact to the trout populations, not just on private land, but on public land above them, public land below them. It may just affect the entire system.”

Toye says he’s heard concerns that such changes could lead to abuse of water rights and harm agriculture. He says Berger and the Water Project have worked to allay those concerns in the bill.

“None of this stuff can happen without a proper injury analysis by the state engineer, to ensure no other water rights are harmed. And requiring landowners to use their water as they normally would during the early part of the year is gonna keep a lot of this land from going fallow, and we want to keep as much farm ground productive in this state as possible.”

Toye adds that anyone interested in using water rights to restore fisheries must prove their water rights would maintain or improve a fishery. He says there is a sunset clause to the bill, phasing it out after 10 years if the Legislature does not renew it.