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Water Rights and the Public Lands

Anne J. Castle, Melissa L. Hughes, Public Land Law II (1997)

Water from the federally owned lands within the United States has provided the key to settlement and development of the Western United States. The water supplies from mountain streams were diverted over many miles and at great expense to allow mining and agriculture and to provide power. The early adoption of the appropriation doctrine in many of the western territories compelled a deference by the federal government to the local water allocation systems when the territories became states and the federal lands became open to homestead and patent.

As the state based water law systems evolved, the U.S. government asserted its own interests in the water supplies in the form of federal reserved water rights. The existence and quantification of those reserved water rights for different types of federal lands continue to be a source of controversy. Recently, the conflict between the federal government as landowner and the private water right holder has come into sharper focus. The measure of, and the limitations on, both public and private water rights on the public lands will determine in large part the usage of those lands into the future.