In the West, the Watermaster Plays Solomon

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In the arid American West, it's the job of the watermaster to referee water usage. During the hot and dry summer months, they are essentially water cops. Their job is to keep the peace among farmers whose livelihoods depend on a limited water supply. Austin Jenkins with the Northwest News Network recently went on patrol with a Watermaster in Washington State's Walla Walla basin. To many, the job confirms an old Western saying: "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting."

A: whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting. And across the West, there are watermasters to stop those fights. During the hot, dry summer months, watermasters are essentially water cops. Their job is to keep the peace among farmers whose livelihoods depend on a limited water supply. Austin Jenkins with the Northwest News Network recently went on patrol with a watermaster in Washington State's Walla Walla Basin.

AUSTIN JENKINS: Watermaster Bill Neve steers his Chevy truck down a rutted farm road. He stops and gets out at the headgate to an irrigation ditch. The headgate is a vertical metal plate that can be raised or lowered by a crank to regulate the amount of water that flows under it. Here, water is diverted from the Walla Walla River so farmers can water their crops.

BILL NEVE: Now this ditch serves 1,100 acres, but I just regulate it here at the headgate.

JENKINS: Neve is carrying a homemade measuring stick. It resembles an old- fashioned wooden spanking paddle. He sticks it into the water that's flowing through the headgate and makes some calculations.

NEVE: So they're diverting eight cubic feet per second right now, which is about one more than what they should be. And so, I'll have to cut that back.

JENKINS: Neve turns a rusted wheel on the headgate, lowering the gate. Less water flowing into this ditch means more water for other farmers downstream. Back in his truck, Neve phones the manager of this ditch.

NEVE: Hello, Tom. Hi, this is Bill Neve - watermaster. Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I dropped down the ditch a little bit about 450 gallons a minute.

JENKINS: Neve is probably the only guy in the Walla Walla Basin who can get away with messing with another farmer's water. He's responsible for enforcing a 19th century code of western water law. It boils down to this: the farmers who got here first have the first right to water. In the Walla Walla Basin, the most senior water rights date back to the mid 1800s.

NEVE: So the people that have the most senior priority date on their water right - if they're downstream and they don't have sufficient water to satisfy their water right, then I have to look upstream and see who's running that has the most junior right and start regulating those people or shutting their pumps off.

JENKINS: Out here, no water means sagebrush instead of crops. It's Neve who shuts off the pumps during the hot summer months when the river levels drop. You might think a government regulator like Neve would be looking down the barrel of a shotgun once in a while, but he says it's never happened in his 17 years here. Well, there was one veiled threat from an old-timer.

NEVE: There was some disagreement as to whether he really needed to shut off or whatnot. And, you know, the reference - well, you know back when I was younger, I'd get my shotgun and we'd take care of it that way. Things like that.

JENKINS: Neve is more good cop than bad cop. He does have the power of arrest, but prefers to talk things out. In the old days, Neve says watermasters weren't always diplomats.

NEVE: I mean, I hear stories of the watermaster going out and pulling people's pumps out of the creek and whatnot, and I mean that's just something that wouldn't happen today.

JENKINS: Over the years, there have been cases of people stealing water. Maybe not as bad as cattle rustling, but still a serious violation of the law. Neve says for the most part, though, farmers around here police themselves. But Chuck Maiden, a farmer and former county commissioner, says there'd be trouble without a watermaster.

CHUCK MAIDEN: You have to have a watermaster. Has to be. I think if you didn't, you'd have a water war going on in some areas.

JENKINS: As if to prove the point, Neve - back in his truck - picks up a voicemail from the county sheriff.

NEVE: There was one landowner that had gone on to an adjacent landowner's property to open a headgate, and that person didn't want him on his property so he called the sheriff's office.

JENKINS: Neve has a postcard on his desk that shows two farmers swinging at each other with shovels. The caption reads: discussing water rights, a Western pastime.

That's why across the arid West, you'll find watermasters like Bill Neve working to keep the peace. For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins.

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