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Conversion of Agricultural Water Rights to Industrial Use

George A. Gould, Proceedings of 27th Annual Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute (1981)

There are two general solutions to an industry needing new water supplies: it can develop new sources of water or it can transfer water from an existing use. While transfers have occurred for years, the more typical response in the past was to develop new sources. Today, there is an increasing trend toward the transfer of existing uses. Almost invariably, the candidate for transfer is an agricultural use.

Transfers typically are assumed to be sought because existing supplies are fully utilized. However, the situation is a good deal more complex. An examination of my own state, Wyoming, is revealing. Surface supplies in Wyoming are approximately 17.3 million acre-feet per year. Subtracting amounts allocated to downstream states leaves Wyoming with 6.4 million acre-feet available for consumption. Consumption is currently about 2.6 million acre-feet, resulting in 3.8 million acre-feet available for development.1 Although these supplies are not [1792] evenly distributed, the figures, nevertheless, tell an interesting story and one which may be true throughout much of the West: there is water available for development.

Economics are a major factor in decisions to transfer water from existing uses, rather than to develop new supplies. Very simply, the cheaply developed water was taken first. The water which remains consists largely of snowmelt run-off and flood wat