Rancher, Newcomer, BLM Fight Over Water

Rancher, Newcomer, BLM Fight Over Water

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John Hollenhorst ReportingA bitter legal battle has erupted in the remote back-country of Southwestern Utah. This battle pits a rancher and a federal agency against a newcomer who moved there, ironically, to get away from neighbors and the government.

This is ranching country we're talking about so you can probably guess what they're fighting about -- it's water. Dave Brown claims God led him to a spring. But the legal question is: Does he have a right to use it?

Bill Hall and his in-laws have run cows here for nearly a century. When he drives across the Hamlin Valley, the antelope play, and wild horses romp in the distance. Nothing is more important here than water.

Bill Hall: “Cows can’t live without it, or the game, or even the wild horses as far as that goes.”

Enter the newcomer Dave Brown. With his wife and five kids, he bought land and moved here five years ago, supporting the family mostly on a government disability check. They're the kind of folks who do home schooling, and who have wind power and solar energy units on the roof.

Dave Brown: “I just wanted to get out of society.”

Brown hauled in the family's drinking water for two years. Then, he says, he climbed up the mountain to pray for water.

Dave Brown: "And was praying here and I opened up my eyes. And then I saw these leaves and they were just glistening with water. And so I got down and I started to dig just with my hands just as frantically as I could. And I made a big hole. And then all the water just filled in. The most remarkable feeling I ever had in my life."

He ran a one-inch pipe down the mountain and now his family has running spring water in the kitchen. But the spring, as it happens, is on federal BLM land, the same land where rancher Bill Hall has a grazing permit.

He says he's known about the spring for 30 years, and it figures into his long-range plans for his BLM grazing permit.

Bill Hall: "To develop that spring and run it out so that when cows are up there, they can utilize it, and the game."

Brown says that's ridiculous. The hike to the spring is so cluttered and overgrown, big animals would never use it.

Dave Brown: "I think it's my water, it's my right. And for the last century, nobody has wanted it."

After Brown developed the spring, the BLM applied for the water right on behalf of the government.

Todd Christensen, U.S. Bureau of Land Management: "He was in trespass. He had no authorization to cross the public land with a pipeline, or develop the spring."

The BLM theory is that water on public land should be reserved for wildlife habitat and legally permitted cows.

Todd Christensen: "It's probably the most precious resource that's out there."

Dave Brown: "What's more important, watering a cow or watering five children and a family?"

Bill Hall: "I wished he would have abided by the law and applied first before he did the development, like I would have to do."

Hall says whether it's for kids or not, stealing water from public land is still stealing. Brown says they're trying to cheat him out of the water because he's not part of the BLM's Good Ol' Boy club. Both sides are awaiting legal rulings from the state and from Washington.

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