PUBLIC WATERS: Lessons from Wyoming for the American West

(U.New Mexico Press, 2021)

Wyoming’s colorful story of water management illuminates the powerful forces that impact water use in the rural American West. The state’s rich history of managing this valuable natural resource provides insights and lessons for the twenty-first-century American West as it faces drought and climate change. Public Waters shows how, as popular hopes and dreams meet tough terrain, a central idea that has historically structured water management can guide water policy for Western states today.

Drawing on forty years as a journalist, with training in water law and economics, Anne MacKinnon paints a lively picture of the arcane twists in the notable record of water law in Wyoming. She tracks advances and retreats of the state’s water-law system in meeting public needs from the early days of small settlers and big stockmen through recent energy boom-and-bust. She further traces darker threads, covering the antagonism toward Native American water rights and streamflow protection for rivers.

MacKinnon argues that the power of Wyoming’s water-management system arises from its 1890 premise that water is a public resource. She contends that this core concept should drive Wyoming to redress old inequities and face new challenges as climate change affects energy markets, state revenue, and the use of the Colorado River—the primary river system of the Intermountain West. She maintains that other Western states should examine how local people control water and that states must draw on historical understandings of water as a public resource to find effective approaches to essential water issues in the West.

“Wyoming’s water law – typically Western yet with its own distinctive features – set as its original goals security of water rights combined with flexibility in the public interest. MacKinnon’s excellent history details the challenges to those goals from successive waves of competing demands, from agriculture, through mining, to resurgent Native American and environmental claims, and ultimately to climate change.”   CAROL M. ROSE, co-author of Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms

Anne MacKinnon

Anne MacKinnon has a passion for translating natural resource management issues for general audiences. Having followed the coal industry from Kentucky to Wyoming as a journalist, she has made her home in Wyoming for forty years. Part of a team that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, she became editor-in-chief of the statewide Casper Star-Tribune and later helped found and direct the online in-depth news site WyoFile.com. Armed with a law degree and eventually a PhD in natural resource economics, she became increasingly interested in how societies in arid places manage a resource as vital and scarce as water.  She has organized conferences on water issues, tracked the work of state and tribal boards governing water, served eight years on the Wyoming Water Development Commission, and has been an adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming. She lives in Casper, Wyoming.

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