Western water users won a big victory a few days ago when federal legal officers concurred that wilderness areas have no rights to water unless Congress specifically grants them.
In a way, the decision is also a victory for environmentalists - though they certainly don't see it that way.Instead, they fear that unless wilderness areas automatically get such rights, they could be deprived of the water needed to make them viable and enjoyable as more dams are built.
It would be unrealistic to pretend that the environmentalists have no reason to be concerned. There may be times when the U.S. must choose between a wilderness area and a water development project.
But when such problems arise, the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis rather than according to some sweeping rule that automatically favors either wilderness or water over the other. Under such circumstances, surely environmentalists can be expected to win a few and lose a few.
Moreover, environmentalists should not ignore the way that the new federal stance on water rights can help overcome some opposition to the designation of new wilderness areas.
Much of that opposition was based on the fear that setting aside more land for wilderness would mean less water to raise crops and livestock and develop new industries. Such fears prompted the Legislature to adopt in 1986 a resolution opposing any further designation whatsoever of wilderness areas in Utah. But the new federal stance on water rights makes it harder to justify such sweeping opposition to wilderness.
Water and wilderness alike are essential to the future of the West. Instead of constantly being forced to choose between the two, let's strive for both whenever possible.