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Guest Opinions

A Water Strategy Will Serve Wyoming Well

As farmers and ranchers, we are acutely aware of the value of water. Two years ago, drought, coupled with wildfires, brought about hay shortage, herd reduction and difficult times for Wyoming ag producers. We are always looking for ways to get maximum use of water in dry years and wet years – our livelihood depends on it. 

After the state’s energy strategy was released in May 2013, we set to work next on developing a state water strategy. The process includes public involvement, like the process used to develop the energy strategy. We hope to complete the water strategy in 2014, and I want to thank the Wyoming ag community for participating in this important project.

As we all know, Wyoming agriculture has quite a history – here’s a lesser known bit of it.  Aldo Leopold, the author of A Sand County Almanac, is credited with being the father of modern environmental ethics. 

He wore many hats as scientist, teacher, hunter and farmer and famously said, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”  

He understood the land, as we do. We know where meals and energy originate, and we are rightly proud of our contribution to the nation’s food and energy needs. Perhaps not surprisingly, Aldo’s family found its way to Wyoming. 

Aldo’s son Luna had strong ties to the Pinedale area. He did a great deal of watershed and runoff related research in the Wind River Mountains. He had a cabin near Fremont Lake. Like his father, Luna was an influential scientist. He shaped the direction of hydrography and geomorphology. 

Luna, who was known to sit by the river near Pinedale in his tattered silver belly Stetson, once wrote, “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime.” 

Luna passed away in 2006, but his legacy lives on in the best work of today’s top scientists and civil engineers.

We are glad Luna’s father provided such an example and inspiration for his son, and we are fortunate to have had a gifted scientist like Luna in our midst. Their words were true during their lifetimes; they are true during ours; and they’ll be true when our children share them with our grandchildren. 

Wyoming water merits the attention it gets. Our waterways have been explored, studied, written about, played in and photographed. It is easy to understand why our water gets so much interest. Wyoming is the headwaters of the nation. We see 17 million acre feet – 5.5 trillion gallons of water – flow out of our state every year. The water sources start high in our mountains and meander from there to shape America. 

We beneficially use about 3.3 million acre feet in our state and know the significance of the phrase “beneficial use.” It means using water to improve our lives and our businesses. It means growing our crops and raising our livestock – putting meals on the table. It means unlocking energy resources for fuel that turns on our lights. It means generating electricity, manufacturing commodities, washing laundry and otherwise adding quality to our daily living. It means work and recreation. We must protect this precious resource and maximize what it can do for Wyoming. 

The primary beneficial use of water in Wyoming is agriculture. Mining, thermoelectric and public supply are our next most important uses. Eighty-five percent of our water use comes from surface water. Nine compacts and/or decrees indicate how much surface water from our state is shared with our neighbors. 

Wyoming has no less than six agencies that are in some way involved in water and have nationally recognized expertise. Whether water rights, development, quality or habitat are involved, the professionals who work for the state of Wyoming represent the tops in their fields. One of the challenges we face is coordinating our subject matter experts to create something together bigger than any one area of expertise – a synergy that results in more than any single group or agency could do by itself.  Having a lot of expertise is actually a good dilemma – we can focus it in the water strategy. 

Like the energy strategy, Leading the Charge, the water strategy will be centered on strategic themes and then will identify actions that are ripe for implementation. The water strategy is not a study, but it does use the studies and work that have been done in the past by our agencies and citizens to define opportunities. Implementing initiatives in the areas of water development, water management, water conservation and protection and restoration will result in realized opportunities. The initiatives will have definite and measurable outcomes. 

We have not identified all the initiatives at this time, but within the next several months, we will be defining exactly what they are. They will be based on the feedback that you provided in the nine official listening sessions held throughout the state, the comments and emails you have sent us and the input we will get from you moving forward. Like the energy strategy, the water strategy will be designed for flexibility, so it can be modified and revised as needed and initiatives can be added, as well.

Please continue to weigh in. We know Wyoming has the best water law in the nation. We need to keep it. We know water is vitally important to our people and our major industries. We need to use it to keep them prospering. We know protecting our water, watersheds and way of life means having a plan that puts water to use yet also balances development and stewardship. 

In a world where water grows more precious every year, making the optimal use of Wyoming water will continue to be the most critical resource issue of “our lifetime and our children’s lifetime.”  A water strategy will serve Wyoming well.