Drop by Drop

Wendy Bowden Crowther helps her clients preserve and secure rights to Utah’s water sources

Published in 2010 Mountain States Rising Stars — July 2010

When Wendy Bowden Crowther visited Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado a few years ago, she stood in awe of the preserved ruins left by the ancestral Pueblo people. Gazing at the stone structures, she realized something particularly astonishing.

“I’m standing in the middle of this hole and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a reservoir,’” Crowther says. “It’s fascinating that they were manipulating water and managing it almost 2,000 years ago.”

Crowther had reason to be intrigued. At Clyde Snow in Salt Lake City, the 45-year-old shareholder represents contemporary water wielders—from the individual farmer to large water districts—in their resource management. Since joining the firm right out of law school at the University of Utah in 2000, she’s focused on natural resources law with an emphasis on water law and litigation.

A huge part of Crowther’s practice is helping clients buy, sell and protect their rights to the finite resource. “A lot of what we’re dealing with is trying to figure out how modern needs for conservation are going to come together with this hundred-year-old [Utah] law that is based primarily on use,” she says. “Whoever uses it first gets to keep using it, no matter how they use it and no matter how much they use.”

Crowther hopes the law will change with conservation trends. Through her roles in the state bar and as chair of the American Bar Association’s Water Resources Committee, she stresses the importance of conservation tactics such as rain- and storm-water harvesting.

Crowther was drawn to water law because of a love of the outdoors and her degrees in history and anthropology. “Water has a lot of history, particularly in the West,” she says. Many of Utah’s water rights date back to the founding pioneers’ entry into the Salt Lake Valley, and Crowther often finds herself researching historical title documents that stretch back beyond the founding of the state. “Even when you’re working with the individual farmers or ranchers that own water rights, they’ve got these family histories that are tied to this land,” she says.

The history of the West continues to dictate today’s water policy. In Strawberry Water Users Association v. the United States, Crowther and her firm represented one of several defendants in a dispute grounded in water rights for land that dated back to 1900. She helped argue against the Association’s claimed rights to use of facilities on a project that moves water from the Colorado River to a swath of urban area. “It was a very complicated case with federal water issues, state water issues and contract issues,” Crowther says. The case stayed in federal courts for nine years until last August, when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a prior U.S. District Court ruling that the rights belonged to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—a victory for her client.

Not all of her cases are so complex. Sometimes, she’s just out scouting the landscape, investigating water works projects for clients. “I love those two sides of water,” she says. “One day you’re standing there in a suit in a courtroom, and the next day you’re in your jeans and your hiking boots out on the canal.”

Either way, it’s history in the making.

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