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Frequently Asked Questions: Water Rights in Wilderness

What about wilderness water rights?

The Utah Wilderness Coalition has proposed federal reserved water rights for over 9 million acres of land currently managed by the BLM. Reserved water rights rest on the principle that when Congress sets aside land for a specific purpose (Indian reservations, national parks, military reserves) it implicitly sets aside or reserves sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservation. Without the necessary water, the reservation would be meaningless. Wilderness water rights are junior rights, and do not displace or supplant other senior rights. Wilderness water rights are subject to availability of unappropriated water. Streams are typically over-appropriated in the west, where more water is claimed than is available, and there may be little water to satisfy a wilderness water right. But the water right ensures that when water is available, wilderness gets its share.

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Will wilderness water rights dry up water downstream?

Wilderness water rights are in-stream flow rights. Wilderness water rights fully respect other water rights on a given stream. They cannot disrupt existing rights, facilities or project operations. The principle of wilderness water rights says only this: that the public’s right to water for its special places should be equal to, not greater than, but surely no less than private rights to water under the state systems that regulate such rights.

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