- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - From the middle of a bank of boulders, Tom Annear cast his fly into Tensleep Creek, hoping the mere presence of something foreign under the water wouldn’t send skittish trout into hiding.

Nothing bit. Two more casts. Nothing. But somewhere in between hope and rejection, a rainbow trout nibbled.

Annear patiently reeled it in, removed the hook and released the fish back into the water before moving slowly to the next hole.

“That’s the thing that gets me up in the morning,” he said. “It’s like a big chess game.”

Annear could have been talking about fishing, but he instead was talking about water.

For the last 30 years, the Cheyenne resident has dedicated his life to keeping more than 130 streams like this one flowing from the mountains. They’re the creeks and rivers where you fish and let your kids play. They’re where you camp and soak your feet after a hike.

Most people packing their cars for a weekend in the mountains might not know their favorite creek may still have water in part because of Annear’s efforts, said Bill Bellis, with Two Rivers Emporium, a fly shop in Pinedale.

But leaving water in creeks and rivers has always been a controversial idea in the drought-stricken Cowboy State. Water is the lifeblood of ranchers, municipalities and energy companies, considered a resource to be used out of the creek. Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting, the popular saying goes.

The need to save water for fish, recreation and the simple joy of living streams, however, outweighs the fear of state-owned water, others say.

And so Annear has worked. For decades he has ignored criticisms, insults and threats. The idea is not to take water from anyone, he said, but to help protect water from potential projects that could otherwise deplete Wyoming’s mountain streams.

“You have to look out ahead, and if I do this what can we do to deal with that, and how can I help this rancher or landowner or municipality,” he said. “And every once in a while, you play for the win.”

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Annear, 63, didn’t grow up in cold, mountain streams. A product of the Midwest, he spent his youth in Iowa. His first job was talking to anglers on the Mississippi River.

He was a warm-water angler, throwing his spinning rod at largemouth bass and blue gills.

But graduate projects and new jobs in Utah and Colorado ultimately lured him into the Cowboy State’s mountains.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department hired him in 1981 as an idealistic 29-year-old to help the Bureau of Land Management survey Cowboy State streams. His job was to document how much water was needed to maintain fisheries on BLM lands.

From there, it’s hard to separate the tall, soft-spoken man’s background from Wyoming’s story of state-owned water.

In the legal world, leaving water in a creek or river instead of pulling it out for something else is called an instream flow.

Before Annear started, Wyoming didn’t have a law allowing water to stay in streams. If it flowed by your place and wasn’t spoken for by someone else, it was yours for the taking. Wyoming didn’t recognize keeping water in a river to support a fishery as a legal use as it did with irrigation or human consumption.

And some saw the notion of water owned and set aside to flow downstream as a threat to Wyoming’s future.

“There are a lot of reasons people use for why we shouldn’t have instream flow filings,” Annear said. “They all sound kind of legit, but they’re all red herrings.”

In 1986, after 14 years of political wrangling and 11 failed bills in the Wyoming Legislature, a law was finally passed.

Annear thought the controversy would end with the legislation. He was wrong.

“People would come to hearings and say they didn’t like instream water rights, that it’s not a good use of water, and that we might need that water later,” Annear said. “But instream flow is a use of water. And it’s a use of water where the water doesn’t go away and is available for other uses after it leaves the segment.”

Each stream is analyzed individually and requires public meetings before being approved.

Annear describes the early years as sometimes “uncomfortable.”

“I was accused of all sorts of impropriety, being a communist, being a liar, being a socialist, being anti-ag,” he said. “Every derogatory thing you could think about, I was accused of.”

And yet he kept going.

“The notion that Wyoming has made the progress we have made in the backdrop of such universal concern of water in the state can show (Annear’s) knowledge and effectiveness,” said Chris Madson, former longtime editor of Game and Fish’s Wyoming Wildlife magazine. “And there’s a world of difference between knowing what needs to be done and having the political savvy to make it happen.”

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As concerns over state-owned water have diminished with time, a concern for fisheries and recreation has grown, Madson said.

“Instream flows protect that for everybody, not just a select few,” Madson said. “Water in the stream continues to be, and in the West tends to be, one of those great democratic legacies passed from one generation to another.”

Annear’s life has been spent navigating the political, institutional, cultural and scientific realms.

He wrote the book on instream flows - a manuscript used by water experts and municipalities across the globe. Universities and towns from as far as Australia and Puerto Rico request his help sorting the complexities of water and river management.

Back home, he still patiently works as he always has, making inroads in communities that once fought his proposals.

Dennis Schroeder began working with Annear decades ago on Pine Creek, a stream running through Schroeder’s Pinedale-area ranch.

“There were periods of time when there wasn’t very much for water in Pine Creek, especially in the fall of the year when, say in August and September, when the brown trout would be wanting to move upstream to spawn,” he said.

But supporting state-owned water is, at times, a tricky road to walk.

“Myself as a cattle buyer, you get into a public meeting, and you’re arguing for instream flow against what many of the ranchers disliked, and the next day you go out and try to buy their cattle,” Schroeder said. “It wasn’t always the easiest situation there.”

Some landowners are beginning to realize there is value in leaving water for fish, Schroeder said, and an economic value in a strong fishery.

But others are still concerned about water heading away from Wyoming instead of being pulled out and used, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association.

“If we don’t use it in-state for beneficial use on land, it flows out of the state to downstream users,” he said.

Though, he added, since the law changed 30 years ago, a state-owned right has not taken water from an irrigator.

Wyoming can have agriculture and enough water for fish, said Cory Toye, Wyoming Water Project director for Trout Unlimited. And Annear helped establish that balance.

“Tom (Annear) has been the most hated guy in the room for decades, but everybody respects him because he’s professional, he’s honest and continues to get back on his feet when they knock him down, and people respect him for that,” Toye said. “When he finally does retire, he will have the rare privilege of having a legacy for generations.”

For now, Annear has no plans to leave. More streams need to be analyzed, explanations given. But when he does decide to turn in his stream gauge, he plans to take his fly rod to the creeks he helped preserve and cast to skittish trout.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com


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