Ski area water rights topic of focus groups

The U.S. Forest Service is turning to focus groups to help it deal with a water-rights directive that landed the agency a slapdown in federal court.

Forest Service officials are to conduct focus-group discussions Tuesday about the clause, which they hope to publish in August and then begin the process of collecting public comment in preparation for adoption by February.

The process being undertaken is “bizarre beyond belief,” said Glenn Porzak, a Colorado water lawyer who represents the National Ski Area Association, which took the Forest Service to court last year to stop enforcement of the directive. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It’s not a new approach, Forest Service spokeswoman Tiffany Holloway said.

“Listening group sessions are just one of the ways that we engage the public in our decision-making,” she said.

The Forest Service was rebuffed by federal court in Denver when it demanded that the new ownership of Powderhorn Mountain Resort turn over new water rights in order to obtain a lease to operate the ski area in the Grand Mesa National Forest.

Powderhorn was the first resort in the nation to be subject to the directive. The court later found that the Forest Service had fallen short of public-involvement requirements in implementing the directive.

Ski resorts, environmental organizations, community organizations and representatives of natural-resource industries are invited, each to their own listening session, the Forest Service said.

Ski areas are to be represented at a meeting Tuesday in Denver. Other meetings are scheduled in Salt Lake City; Lake Tahoe, Nev.; and Washington, D.C.

“The sessions will focus primarily on the principal rationale underlying the ski area water rights clause: ensuring that sufficient water remains available to support ski areas and dependent communities,” Leslie A. Weldon, deputy chief of the National Forest system, wrote to participants.

Officials have said the policy is needed to prevent ski areas from selling water rights to other users should they have more value than for snowmaking.

Since the policy was invoked with Powderhorn, municipal water providers, grazers and other industries and organizations that use federal lands have been told they could be subject to the same requirements.

“We’re disappointed we haven’t been invited to participate” in the listening session, said Mark Hermundstad, the Grand Junction water attorney who represents the Ute Water Conservancy District.

Ute Water filed an amicus brief in the Powderhorn case that “raised serious issues about how the Forest Service rules could be applied,” but won’t be allowed to direct them to the Forest Service listening process, Hermundstad said.

The Forest Service has “kind of awakened a sleeping dog” by extending the policy beyond ski areas, Porzak said. Municipalities and other users “are now focused on this issue,” he said.

While the sessions are open to the public, “The intent is to have people of like interests/expertise to be able to have conversations with people of similar interests,” Holloway said. “We will not turn people away from any meeting but will ask that they allow the invitees to have a free conversation.”

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., whose 3rd Congressional District includes several ski areas, grazers, municipal water suppliers and others, said he was disappointed the Forest Service was conducting meetings far from where the effects of the policy will be most heavily felt.

“When are they going to talk to the people who stand to be affected by this effort to trample all over state water law?” Tipton said via a spokesman.


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