Gov. Norm Bangerter and the state engineer are hailing a federal decision that water rights are not implied by the creation of wilderness areas. However, environmentalists are fuming.
The first wilderness area in the nation to feel the impact of the ruling may be one in Utah, near St. George just above the Arizona border.At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Friday, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel said the Reagan Administration has taken the position that wilderness areas do not necessarily have reserved water rights. The Bureau of Land Management, which administers most of the country's remaining wilderness study areas, is under the Interior Department.
But Attorney General Edwin Meese concurred with the decision by the Interior Department's chief legal expert, Solicitor Ralph Tarr - bringing all federal wilderness areas under the decision, regardless of which agency administers them. U.S. Forest Service wilderness areas, under the Agriculture Department, are thus brought under the ruling.
The ruling overturns a 1979 solicitor's decision, issued during the Carter administration, that said the creation of wilderness areas implies the setting aside of water needed to protect wilderness values.
The earlier solicitor's opinion was cited by a Colorado federal judge in a Sierra Club suit that sought to establish water rights for wilderness. That suit is still being appealed.
Soon after the Colorado judge's ruling, angry anti-wilderness groups in Utah cited a possible loss of water rights for other needs as one of their main arguments against designating wilderness.
Hodel said the decision is a major victory for water users in the West. If Congress is to designate water rights for a wilderness area, it must specifically do so in the legislation setting up the wilderness area, he said.
"That is very good news," Bangerter told the Deseret News Friday when he heard of the decision.
"I hope it holds up, and I will work hard to endorse that position. I'm grateful to the Reagan Administration for taking the action they've taken."
State Engineer Robert L. Morgan, Utah's chief water rights official, said that under the earlier solicitor's ruling, there was an "opportunity if an area was declared a wilderness . . . for existing, bona fide, legitimate water rights to be interrupted by these wilderness areas."
Most potential conflict would be in lower elevation regions, such as many BLM wilderness study areas being considered for protection, he said.
"It's a victory for the states. (We have) "always maintained that the states have primary control over water rights," Morgan said.
The Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness Area, straddling the Utah-Arizona border, is one of the few BLM areas actually designated as wilderness in Utah. It was part of the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act in 1984.
Adjudication of water rights in the Virgin River is going on, with a deadline of Sept. 10 for the government to assert an interest in water rights for the wilderness, if it is to do so.
With this ruling, the federal government probably won't assert the water rights. In that case, the river's resources will be appropriated among other users.
So even if the solicitor's opinion is eventually overturned, the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness Area may not have water rights.
Maggie Fox, the Sierra Club's Southwest Region director, Boulder, Colo., said the Virgin River flows through the middle of that wilderness.
When the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness was established, she said, a congressional committee report "referred to two really important water values that the Congress sought to protect with this wilderness designation."
These are recreational boating and the protection of endangered fish, such as the woundfin minnow.
"If the wilderness area doesn't have a water right, how does it help (recreation and fish) to have a wilderness designation?" Fox asked.
Ironically, she said, the BLM Arizona Strip office in St. George recently announced it would not study the Virgin River for possible designation as a wild and scenic river for several reasons. One of these, she said, is that the river is inside a wilderness area or a scenic withdrawal.
Lawson LeGate, a public lands specialist for the Sierra Club in Salt Lake City, charged, "I see political fingerprints all over it. I see an outgoing and discredited attorney general who's been asked by some political cronies to do one more favor before he turns out the lights."
LeGate said one of the most important values that can be protected by wilderness is the riparian, or streamside, habitat.
"It's a slam on wilderness," said Mike Medberry, Utah representative for The Wilderness Society.
"Where there are conflicts they can be resolved individually, but there's no sense in this kind of blanket condemnation of water in wilderness," Medberry said. "Without water you can't have the community of life that a wilderness protects.
"Wilderness without water is pointless."