In my novel TELLURIDE TOP OF THE WORLD Cooper Stuart fights to defend his ranch, the YbarC’s vast senior water rights from the Ajax Ski Company and other development groups. What does that really mean in law and real life ranching and farming west of the Mississippi River and especially in the South Western USA’s Four Corners area.
In the Western US law, state-by-state, it means the use of water is a deeded and recorded at the county courthouse as a property right. It’s no different than the deed to a house or land. Every drop of water in the west is owned by an individual, a ranch, a farm, a town, a Native American Tribe, a corporation, a ski company, etc.
The State Water Engineers Office and the water courts allocate all water for use. It is allocated to whichever owner or interest filed a deed for it first in time therefore creating a senior water right. Therefore senior water right’s owners can cut off junior water rights owners in droughts or shortages. For instant the near by Pueblo Indian Pueblo’s can cut off the City of Santa Fe New Mexico. All water rights can be sold. And it is said in the West water runs uphill toward money. It is a criminal offence to use any water you do not own for any use. It is a criminal offence to use deeded water for any use that is not specified in the water deed e.g. snowmaking for a ski resort, which is an industrial use. All deeded water rights are “use or lose’ meaning each year the owner must use the deeded amount of water for its specific purpose like irrigation for hay on Cooper’s ranch the YbarC. If the deeded amount of water is not used a junior right’s user can claim it and a water court can strip the senior owner of its ownership.
So why all the gunfire over water rights in the novel. Its because with out water rights in an arid region where the combined snowpack and rain fall range from four to twenty –five inches of rainfall equivalent a year there is not a person or business of any kind including ranching, towns, industry and ski resorts that can survive without substantial water rights. So the battle to own them never rests and if money can’t buy them then a bullet in the back like open range ranching days will suffice. Who ever controls water in the west controls western business and life itself.
So Cooper battles the developers to control his ranch’s deeded senior water rights to grow hay for and to water his cattle. Joe Bear Spirit his Ute Indian friend who is an Indian Water Rights advocate battles all the senior Anglo and Spanish water rights owners who he and his tribe believe stole the rights from them with fraudulent treaties at gun point. This theft includes the US government.
Today the Pueblo and Indian tribes of the SW and Four Corners are winning back stolen senior water rights with their newly educated tribal attorneys. This is causing stress and anger for the users of the stolen water rights including ranches, farms, towns, cities, mines, industries and ski resorts. Therefore not only lawsuits are flying but sometime bullets.